A Georgia coach who was dealt a cancer diagnosis before the start of the season made his final goal in life to watch his players win a state championship. They did just that in December. After the coach’s passing in January, the community remembered his impact.
Irwin County coach Buddy Nobles had a habit of dropping by the office of the president of the booster club when he needed something, so Marty Roberts wasn’t surprised to see the popular coach in his doorway last August.
A few weeks earlier, Nobles had come by to ask for a golf cart for preseason workouts. The coach didn’t have the energy he once had, and he knew the hot summer days would take a toll on him.
This time, Nobles wasn’t coming by to ask for anything.
“He said, ‘I have stomach cancer,’” Roberts said. “It was like you could hear a pin drop in my office. We cried a bit and hugged each other.”
Roberts asked his friend how he wanted to handle the diagnosis. Did he want to step away from the team? Did he want to name his own successor?
“He said, ‘I’m not leaving my boys,’” Roberts said. “’We’re not going to have a pity party for Buddy Nobles. I won’t take anything away from the seniors.’ He never thought about leaving.”
Nobles had a particular affinity for this year’s group of seniors, as the Irwin County Indians had reached the Georgia Class A state championship game and lost each of the previous four seasons. Finishing the job was the last goal of Nobles’ life.
Nobles’ Indians did just that. Irwin broke its 44-year state football title drought with a 56-14 win over Marion County in Atlanta Dec. 14. After the win, Nobles was helped on stage for his speech.
“Ocilla, we did it,” said Nobles, lifting his finger to indicate Irwin was No. 1. “To our players, I’m just going to tell you right now … You guys are a team of destiny. If there’s been a better Class A team in the history of Georgia football I want to see them.
“Without Jesus, you’ve got nothing in this world.”
Nobles died in January – just over a month after his team won the state title. He was hospitalized in Atlanta after the state championship win and never got the chance to return to Irwin County High to celebrate with his team. He was released from the hospital into hospice care.
“He was determined to see it through,” Roberts said. “He’s as strong-willed a person as I’ve ever met in my life. It was so hard to watch him go through it. I think it would have been a great season anyway, but they wouldn’t be denied for Coach Nobles.”
Nobles’ funeral was at the Irwin County football stadium. His players wore their uniforms and marched around the track before the ceremony. They then lined the fence and saluted the hearse as it carried Nobles’ body to its final resting place.
“He had a purpose all year long to stay alive for that championship,” Roberts said. “When he did, that’s when he passed away. It was heart-breaking. There were 2,500 people at the funeral. It was a fitting tribute to a fine man.”
Denied state championships in four previous finals appearances under Nobles, the Indians were not going to let this one slip by. Irwin outscored its regular-season opponents by an average score of 42-5 on its way to a perfect 13-0 record.
Nobles occasionally missed games during the season when he was hospitalized. But even then, he’d draw up a game plan from his hospital bed. During Nobles’ sideline absence, defensive coordinator Casey Soliday handled head coaching duties.
The Irwin County agriculture department built Nobles an elevated stand to coach from when he could attend the games. On those occasions, he wore a headset and called plays while sitting next to his daughter.
“Other teams even let us set up the stand for road games,” Roberts said. “That’s how loved Buddy was in the football community. He’d FaceTime the coaches after all of the games he missed.”
Once the Indians had the state-championship game in hand, the Irwin County fans chanted “Buddy” until the coach put his hand on his heart and waved back.
“He never got to shake everyone’s hands because he went right back to the hospital in Atlanta,” Roberts said. “He never got to celebrate the championship they always wanted.”
When Nobles was present at the start of home games, Irwin players formed a circle around him and the wooden stand as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” played over the loudspeakers. The song became a rallying cry for both he and Irwin County fans.
Irwin went 67-13-2 under Nobles, winning five region championships. Before arriving in Ocilla, he previously coached at Florida schools University Christian and Union County with Robby Pruitt and as head coach. He was also a member of Pruitt’s staffs at Fitzgerald and Coffee.
Irwin County Schools Superintendent Dr. Thad Clayton issued a statement after Nobles’ passing, recognizing the coach for his impact on the community.
“Irwin County Schools has lost a true man of God who will have an everlasting impact on many students, players, coaches and colleagues,” said Superintendent Dr. Thad Clayton.
“Humbly, I ask all of you to join me in prayer for Tammy, Kasey, Kaleb, Kenley and family, as we pray to the Heavenly Father for comfort, provision, and thankfulness for His Grace and tender mercies.”
Buddy Nobles’ Lasting Legacy
School: Irwin County High (Ga.)
Career record: 67-13-2 (6 seasons)
Region championships: 5
State championship game appearances: 5
State championships: 1 (2019)
Streak: Irwin County has won 27 straight regular-season games.
History: Nobles is the winningest coach in Irwin County history.