Anyone who has ever lived in the city of Ennis for any amount of time knows that its shining glory in sports has always been high school football. And fall 2019 hasn't been just any old season. Sam Harrell returned to coach the Lions in 2018 as a rebuilding year — they even made it to the first round of the playoffs last fall and have clinched a playoff spot once again this year. EHS is off to a great start, so the fans feel almost like it's the rebirth of football in Ennis, "Sam Harrell style."
The city has been buzzing with excitement since the official announcement was made last June that Harrell would be re-taking the reins of the football program for Ennis. Formerly at EHS from 1994 to 2009, he was more than just a coach — he was a football "god" — bringing three State Championships (2000, 2001, and 2004) back home to Ennis during his fifteen-year tenure.
After Harrell was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2010, he had to step away from Ennis High School and his role as head coach to focus on his health. The town of Ennis came together to support their long-time coach and held a benefit in his honor to help with medical costs.
After a brief hiatus and some out-of-the-country stem cell treatments, Harrell was able to return to the football field in 2012 as assistant coach at his former Alma Mater, Brownwood High School.
Harrell says, "I have been coaching since 1979, so that would have been 40 years, but I guess there were about two years in there when I was sick, and I was unable to coach."
It's a given that Sam Harrell must have football blood running through his veins. His favorite sport seems to have always taken up a huge chunk of his life.
He attended Brownwood High School and graduated Valedictorian in 1975, where he played for legendary Coach Gordon Wood.
Harrell said, "My dad was a football coach, too, and he and Coach Wood and Coach West from BHS are the biggest influences on my choice to become a football coach."
Harrell graduated Summa Cum Laude from Abilene Christian University in 1979. He had transferred there his junior year but later decided not to play football at ACU. There he met the love of his life, Kathy, and they married that same year. They have been married for 40 years — the same number of years since he began coaching.
The Harrells have three married sons who are also football coaches. The eldest son is Zac, head coach at Athens High School this year. The middle son is Graham, who was formerly at UNT Denton but recently moved to Los Angeles to assume the role of Offensive Coordinator ("OC") at USC. The youngest Harrell is Clarke, and he is coaching with his big brother Zac at Athens High School as their Offensive Coordinator.
Sam and Kathy Harrell are proud grandparents to six grandkids – three boys and three girls – Gunner, Charlee, Hattie, Hawk, Hayes and Stella. And giving his thanks to God, Sam Harrell is a much healthier husband, father and grandfather these days after his hard-fought battle with MS.
Coach Harrell relays, "Believe me. I wasn't looking to get back into high school coaching last year. I was genuinely enjoying what I was doing at SAGU in Waxahachie (2017), but when the Ennis head coaching position opened up, I told Kathy, my wife, 'that is the one high school job I would be interested in.'"
That option was especially appealing to him since he has continued to live in Ennis since 1994 — and because of his close ties with long-time assistant coaches still there at EHS, Paul Willingham and Steve Marrow.
The City of Ennis is unique in its close-knit ties of unity. It seems most of the population has the same top three priorities: "Faith, Family and Football" (in that order). Knowing the mantra of this special town, it seems even more prophetic that their "football favorite son" is appropriately named "Sam," (or "Sammy" as Harrell's birth certificate reads) or the extended version – "Samuel," the biblical name from which "Sam" is derived.
According to the Bible, "Samuel" means "God has heard our calling."
Therefore, his many followers and faithful fans are rejoicing over his decision to come back to Ennis to lead the football Lions to the Promised Land, the playoffs — and hopefully another state championship in the future.
Harrell relays, "I am very excited to be coaching the Lions again, where we, as a school and city, have had so many great moments together in the past."
And Harrell is not just a coach during school hours; instead, he is a full-time encourager to a number of his student-athletes. He is a godly man who genuinely has a heart for his players – not just to teach them how to play football but, more importantly, how to be better people.
Some of his kids come from broken homes without a "father figure" in the house or whose family is struggling financially. Harrell is often there to pick up the pieces of the young men's lives, and he often does as much as he can do to assist them when help is needed.
As a newspaper correspondent, I'm always on the lookout for a fresh story. At the end of the "Meet the Lions" event last fall, I looked around, and suddenly passed by a rather large, athletic man with his family starting to enter the football field. I stopped the approachable-looking young man and bluntly asked him, "Did you used to play Ennis football for Coach Harrell?"
The big man quickly spread a friendly smile across his face, held his arms straight out in front of himself, and proudly boasted, "Yes. And here are my two State Championship rings to prove it!"
What a great coincidence! I then asked the guy his name, and an interesting conversation ensued.
Tyrone McDaniel, now in his mid-thirties, proudly says, "Sam Harrell is the reason I came here tonight for the 'Meet the Lions.' I was on his 2000 and 2001 State Championship teams."
When asked about how he feels about Harrell's return to coach the Lions, McDaniel replied, "I am so excited to see this man back as the head coach."
"Not only did I admire this guy as a great coach," he continued, "but also as a father figure to me and many others in the town of Ennis."
McDaniel recounts, "Coach even helped me out several times when I got into teenage trouble, but somehow he would always steer me back onto the right path."
He even remembers the coach and his wife Kathy letting him spend the night sometimes at their home during his high school days.
I then asked him about his own family standing by his side. He introduced me to his wife and his son Tyrone McDaniel, Jr. I asked him if his boy happens to play football.
"Of course," McDaniel said. "As a matter of fact, my son is in the junior high football program. We had kicked around the idea of relocating to another school district, but after hearing that Sam Harrell was coming back to coach the Lions again, our family has decided to remain here in Ennis."
This proud papa can't wait for his young man to get the experience of getting to play for his former, well-known coach.
After that interesting encounter, I caught up with Coach Harrel about his memories of McDaniel, or "Big T" as he was called back then.
Harrell remarked, "Big T played defensive line for us. He was a definite force on the D-line and a good kid, too. But there again, I thought all of them were good kids, even when they needed a little guidance and some loving."
A very humble man is Harrell, but there are bound to be countless "selfless" stories that could be told about this legendary coach.
In 2013 Harrell was inducted into the prestigious "Texas Football Hall of Fame," and over all his years of coaching has garnered many football accolades and awards, but perhaps even more important is the lasting effect he leaves on his players as he mentors them and helps turn them into fine young men.
At the end of the day, Harrell seems always to be a winner – whether or not his team wins or loses the football game. And his players are winners, too, simply by learning life skills from a great man like Harrell.