High School Sports

Stewart counts down final days with Northside

WARNER ROBINS -- Thursday night becomes Friday morning, and that’s a major time transformation in the fall, as game day is born. More and more during the fall of 2014, that stretch of sleep was interrupted for Mark Stewart on a regular basis.

“Every game lately, I feel like I’ve been all upset,” the veteran offensive line coach at Northside said. “Last Thursday, I woke up at 4 o’clock that Friday (morning). The team we (were playing) I thought was a real, real good team. ... I was wondering, “Is this gonna be my last dadburn game coaching?’ ”

Northside thumped Glynn Academy 31-7, so it wasn’t, but Stewart’s last game coaching is coming up within the next two Fridays. Stewart, who played at Northside in the 1970s and has had two stints coaching at the school, has made no secret for a while that this will be his final season with the Eagles.

The Friday nights have gone well, leading into the playoffs, with more good Friday nights and restless Thursday nights. At worst, however, Stewart has one game left. At best, two games remain for one of the poster boys for the program for much of the past three decades.

There he was back in the 1970s, getting into that three-point stance as an offensive lineman for the Eagles. Years later, he joined the staff for a few seasons, spent two seasons at Southwest and then returned to his alma mater.

And finally, after more than two decades since that return, Stewart is getting out ... probably.

“I’m not really saying I’m retiring,” the 54-year-old said. “I’m just going to get me a little break. And if I want to, I could come back and coach here or somewhere around here ... or just go fishing and play golf every day.”

His high school quarterback has spent much of the past two-plus decades of his life near Stewart. And Kevin Kinsler, in his fifth season as Northside’s head coach, knows how hard it can be to leave coaching, spend life as a civilian and return to the grind.

“Right now, it’s a difficult thing,” said Kinsler, who praised Stewart’s longevity, dedication and loyalty to Northside. “You’ve been doing something for so long, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing something else.

“Especially a football coach. You work so many hours, and it just dominates your life year round. Then you start thinking, it’s hard to imagine another life out there away from it.”

Stewart started the aforementioned imaging when he realized he was coaching the sons of players he had coached. And he and his wife Kim -- a Warner Robins graduate and Northside teacher -- had bought a house in Carrebelle, Florida, near Apalachicola south of Tallahassee.

Once he made the decision, every week was huge and suddenly had finality to it.

“The Warner Robins game, I was sad,” he said. “The Houston County game I wanted to win because they hadn’t beaten us.”

He was bitten by history early this season.

“I never thought about it,” he said of Northside having won 10 games 16 straight seasons entering 2014. “But being my last year, when we lost to Jones County, first thing in my mind popped up, ‘Look, I was here at the starting of it, I ain’t gonna be part of it not finishing.’ ”

And the Eagles proceeded toward a state-record 17th straight 10-win season. They’re 12-1 -- Northside hasn’t lost more than two games in a season since going 10-3 in 2002 -- entering Friday night’s GHSA Class AAAAA semifinal at Mercer against Allatoona.

Upon returning to Northside in 1997, Stewart has been a part of two state titles and perfect seasons and all of those 10-win seasons, beginning with 12-1 in 1998. He has coached under Stan Gann, Conrad Nix and Kinsler and played under Nix.

Stewart certainly doesn’t lack energy and still gets excited talking about his current players, the coaching career that began under Bill Boyd at Baldwin, meeting big names while working at the Senior Bowl trip and just the joy of coaching.

And he’ll take the same mentality into Friday -- and he and his alma mater hope next Friday -- as he has since that debut in the early 1980s. His philosophy has been that he’ll yell at a jersey number, not the person inside that jersey.

“You can get on kids as hard as you want, as long as long as they know that you care about them and love them,” said Stewart, who has all but passed his position torch to Northside product and colleague Kelvin McDavis. “Once they realize that you care about them, you can coach them as hard as you want.”