By Patti Putnicki
Byrdstown, Tennessee seems like a tiny blip on the radar. It has a population of around 800, a total area of just 1.5 square miles, and very little wealth. In fact, an estimated 28 percent of its residents live below the poverty level. To an outsider, it seems like the kind of place you’d see in a movie, with the plot centered around a protagonist who spends his, or her, whole life trying to leave.
But, that’s not how Brittney Garner sees Byrdstown and the tiny towns around it, at all.
“Pickett County is wonderful. It’s like a big family. Granted, there’s not a whole lot to do here. If you’re in high school, a big thing is hanging out at the Shell station. But, there’s also a lot to love—it’s very safe, and everyone looks out for everyone else,” Garner said. “If something happens—if something goes wrong—we all pull together. If someone’s in need, the town will rally around that person or that cause.”
Garner clearly lives by that small town credo. You see, this shy, 25-year-old Spanish teacher just saved her high school’s football team by becoming its head coach. She didn’t do it to break a “glass ceiling” or to make a statement. And, she certainly didn’t do it for the unexpected media attention. Brittney Garner became the first female head coach of a high school football team in the state of Tennessee for one reason: the team needed her.
Small Town Proud
Garner grew up in Livingston, a town a few miles away, and went to Pickett County High School in Byrdstown, herself. She played softball and basketball, partially because she came from a “sports family,” and partially because “it was more fun than hanging out at the Shell station.”
Like most 18-year-olds, by the time she headed off to college, she still didn’t know what she wanted to do.
“I had quite a few majors. I started with biology, then was going to work with wildlife. Finally, I discovered language arts. I fell in love with Spanish,” Garner said.
Her last year of college, Garner mentored under a Spanish teacher to get some real classroom experience, and to see if teaching was a good career fit for her. As luck would have it, when she graduated in 2012, her alma mater, Pickett County High School, had an opening. So, she went back to her roots, as a Spanish teacher as well as coach of the school’s Lady Bobcats softball team.
“I never really thought about being a teacher, but once I got into the classroom, I fell in love with it. Working with the kids is the best part—the kids here are just great,” Garner said. “It’s such a unique experience working along side the same teachers who influenced me as a kid. It gives you a whole new perspective, seeing things from the inside-out.”
Even with this perspective, Garner never expected to be the head football coach for the Bobcats—or any other football team for that matter.
The Football Season That Almost Didn’t Happen
“Our long-time coach had retired at the end of 2013, and our new coach was let go right before the season began. If the school couldn’t get a fully accredited employee to step in and take the coaching position fast, the team wasn’t going to be allowed to play. The whole season would be cancelled,” Garner said. “Honestly, when the school administrators first approached me about becoming head coach for the Bobcats, I thought they were kidding. I am definitely not a football expert, unless you count playing the Madden video game.”
As most things in Byrdstown, it would be a team effort: the retired head coach, O.B. Caudle, agreed to come back in to call the plays and run practices. Garner would become the motivator, the administrator and the legitimizer to keep the football program alive.
“When I told my dad I had taken on the coaching position, he asked if I thought it through before I made my decision. The reality is, I didn’t,” Garner said. “I just thought about how I would have felt if, when I was in high school, someone would have told me that I couldn’t play softball because no one wanted to coach me. I would have been heartbroken. You have to understand, I have all of the boys on the team in my class. I know how much football means to them. There was no other choice but to say ‘yes,’ at least in my mind.”
Although Caudle is the playmaker, Garner takes her role seriously.
“O.B. is incredible and I’m so thankful that he came back to do the real coaching. I’ve learned so much from him,” Garner said. “I’m there for support. I’m the person who keeps the boys from getting too emotional; to keep them focused. If someone is out of the game, I tell them they did a great job and gently reinforce what they can do a little better when they go back in.”
Oh, and there’s one more thing.
“I’m also a great line coach, which pretty much involves saying, ‘Don’t step on that line,’” Garner said. “It’s a start.”
It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, But How You Play the Game
But, how did the residents of Pickett County and the players themselves react to a female at the head of a male-dominated sport? With great appreciation.
“The whole community rallied behind us, and the team, of course, has been great,” Garner said. “The third weekend of the season, we had a pep rally and one of our Juniors spoke. He gave such a heartfelt, sincere thank you to me that I had tears in my eyes.”
At this writing, the season has ended, with the Bobcats winning two of their 10 games. No championships this year. But, no regrets.
“I think our guys did great. They played with a lot of heart and I’m really proud of them,” Garner said. “I think the biggest thing is that they pulled together as a team. You know, I’ve played softball and basketball my whole life, but the teamwork that’s required in football goes beyond anything I’ve seen before. I think that ability to play as a team—to rally together, and to have somebody’s back and trust that someone has yours—is a good life lesson, win or lose.”
That’s a lesson that Garner has already taught the team by stepping in when they needed her most.