Remembering ‘Coach’ Hundreds turn out for Bruce Field memorial service to honor Isaacs

Rocky Nimmons/Courier

From left, Bob Allison, Mike Isaacs, Andy Virgil and Hamp Summey lead a procession of former Pickens High School players and coaches down the hill at Bruce Field during a memorial service for legendary Pickens coach Bill Isaacs on Saturday.

By Rocky Nimmons

PICKENS — A sea of blue filled Bruce Field on Saturday, as hundreds of former players, friends, fans and family gathered to pay homage to the winningest football coach in Pickens High School history on Saturday morning.

Rocky Nimmons/Courier Bill Isaacs’ wife, Peggy, is pictured with their children, Mike and Crystal, during a memorial service held in his honor Saturday at Bruce Field in Pickens.

Rocky Nimmons/Courier
Bill Isaacs’ wife, Peggy, is pictured with their children, Mike and Crystal, during a memorial service held in his honor Saturday at Bruce Field in Pickens.

Bill Isaacs, who served as head coach at PHS from 1965-93, was gunned down near his home Sept. 14 along with his neighbor, Dickie Stewart. Another neighbor, 64-year-old Albert Leon Bowen, has been charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

Isaacs’ family opted for his memorial service to take place on the field where many remember him leading the Blue Flame for 28 seasons.

Many took seats in the historic stadium near downtown Pickens, while a mass of former players walked down the hill leading into the stadium Isaacs made famous, many hand-in-hand just as they had been during their playing days for the Blue Flame.

Exhibits of Isaacs’ life history and awards were placed around the field, which featured a freshly painted Blue Flame logo in the center, just as it did for fall Friday nights during Isaacs’ tenure.

Wreaths of every class during Isaacs’ tenure adorned the front entrance of the stadium. It was just as if a Blue Flame game was about to start at any time, with everyone in attendance donning their Pickens gear in celebration of the life of the man who led their beloved team through some of its most successful years.

The families of Isaacs and Stewart took places of honor on the field, as did many set to speak at the event. A special area was also set aside for members of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, who have supported fellow DNR officer Mike Isaacs and his family during the last week as they coped with the loss.

Many recalled their favorite memories of Isaacs during the memorial, including several of his former assistants, players and family members. Although the event was wrought with emotions, those in attendance had chances to smile and laugh as the memories flowed freely.

The events of Isaacs’ death were only briefly mentioned at the end of the service, when Isaacs’ son-in-law, Harvey Gantt, spoke on behalf of the family.

“This entire sequence of events that brings us here today is tragic for two families directly, and the community as well,” Gantt said. “Much has been written in the press, released in statements and said on TV, including the fact of an ongoing dispute. Let me make this perfectly clear — there is no ongoing dispute, nor was there ever.

“For over a year, this neighborhood has been intimidated with behavior that was taking place that should not have been accepted in any town. Let me reiterate — there was no dispute. This should have been prevented, and in my opinion it could have been.”

Gantt also talked of the incredible act of valor of Stewart, his father-in law’s neighbor of more than 30 years.

“I want to express our heartfelt condolences to the Stewart family,” Gantt said. “When I think of Dickie, I think of him as a devoted, loving husband, father, grandfather and friend that was strong in his faith to God and country and an unquestionable devotion to his church. He was exceptionally intelligent and very laid back and level at all times.

“Dickie has always been a friend to Bill. Every instance when Bill was sick, you never had to ask — Dickie was there to take care of the fish or the garden and helped in any way he could. (Isaacs’ wife) Peggy best described Bill and Dickie’s relationship as one that started out as friends, but became more like brothers as time passed.”

Gantt described Stewart, who was on the phone with 911 dispatchers and attempting to help Isaacs as he was shot, as “a hero.”

“Not just in his service in the armed forces or filling in for Santa at the church, inspiring the youth of the community, but always being there for a friend in need,” Gantt said. “Wikipedia defines ‘hero’ as a person of character in the face of danger or adversity or who in a position of weakness shows courage, bravery or self sacrifice. Dickie Stewart was a hero, not taking consideration for his own safety and went to the side of his comrade to render aid and unfortunately made the ultimate sacrifice. God bless you, Dickie Stewart — you are our hero.”

Isaacs was also honored by his longtime friend and assistant coach Andy Virgil, who said he first met Isaacs in 1960, when the two both played football at Appalachian State.

“I knew him for 55 years,” Virgil said.

He said after graduation, the coaching bug bit Isaacs, who got a job at Mullins High School. When Virgil graduated, he said Isaacs came back to Boone, N.C., and offered him a job, because he had just been hired “at a little school in Pickens, South Carolina.”

“Back in those days, high school teams had only two coaches — a head coach and an assistant coach,” he said. “Bill and I, being young and full of spirit, where coming into a program that had won one game in the last 22. We thought we were going to turn the program around right away. It didn’t quite work out that way. We only won one game that year, but it was homecoming right here on this field.”

Virgil said the Blue Flame “got better and better” under Isaacs’ leadership.

“In 1969, we went 5-5-1, but that team was the one that started the 57-game winning streak, which is still a state record,” Virgil said. “In the decade of the 1970s, we were able to win 89 games, lose 10 and tied one.”

“It is a sad time, and we have a tendency to grieve and cry, but we are not doing what Bill wants,” Virgil later said. “Bill wants us to remember him in joy and happiness and all the good relationships that were had with him.”

Former assistant Hamp Summey also addressed the gathering and said not only did he play for Isaacs, but he was honored to coach with him.

“He was not only my coach and my mentor, he was also my friend,” Summey said. “Coach Isaacs was tough on us, but we knew he cared. Coach always believed in doing things the right way — he never cut corners.”

Bob Allison, another of Isaacs’ assistants who started coaching at PHS in 1970, said he didn’t at the time know how fortunate he was to be stepping into one of the winningest high school programs in S.C. history.

“Those were truly the glory years of Pickens High School football,” Allison said. “Coach Isaacs literally put Pickens on the map. I was always thankful to be a small part of that. Coach was an excellent teacher of the game and a leader. He exuded confidence.”

Charlie Hendrix, Pickens’ first black football player, recalled Isaacs coaching during integration.

“He recruited me as the first African-American to come to Pickens High,” he said. “He was straight to the point. He told me what was about to happen and said if I chose to come to Pickens High, that he would make me productive. He said it is a different time now — we want you to play football.

“He was a fisher of men,” Hendrix added. “All my brothers played for Coach, and my cousin and sons played for him.”

Former Pickens County assistant sheriff Tim Morgan also played for Isaacs and said his greatest memory of Isaacs was the day when he told all the players he wanted to meet with each one individually in 1969 when the team was on a losing streak.

“I had put off meeting with Coach Isaacs as long as I could, because I just knew it couldn’t be good,” Morgan said. “But he said to me: ‘You’ve got a lot of heart. And for someone your size, you hit harder than anybody. How do you think we can turn this around?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, Coach. But I’ll try harder.’”

Morgan said Isaacs changed his life.

“When I was 17, I had very little self-confidence, very little self-esteem and then, suddenly, the greatest mentor of my life told me how good I was,” he said. “It changed me.”

Twins Bart and Brett Turner told the gathering they dreamed of playing for Isaacs from a young age and would go to the games every Friday night. The following Saturday morning, they would recreate every play. The duo got their chance to play for Isaacs when they made it to high school and said Isaacs was a father figure to them while they were on the field and praise God for him and his family being such an impact on their lives.

Bart Turner is now an assistant coach for the Blue Flame, coaching under first-year coach John Boggs, who also played for Isaacs at Pickens. Brett Turner is a former Pickens head coach who is in his first season leading the Seneca High School program.

The gathering ended with those in the stands coming to the field and seeing the many tables filled with memorabilia, as well as consoling the families of both Isaacs and Stewart on their devastating loss.

A photo album from the Memorial is on our Facebook page. Click the link below to view: