Buddy Nobles: Making Impact In Union County

LAKE BUTLER --- It's a hazy, overcast morning in this small town just 25 miles north of Gainesville, the grey skies and damp chill a near-perfect reflection of the sadness and shock that has gripped the entire community in these past several days since the lives of several children were lost in a tragic accident involving a school bus, a car loaded up with school-age kids and an out of control semi driven by a man with a history of troubles.

The normally effervescent Buddy Nobles, the football coach and athletic director at Union County High School, is putting on his most cheerful face for his visitors and he's appreciative that everyone understands that things aren't quite the same. Not even the impending decision by C.J. Spiller, who will announce if it's Florida, Florida State or Clemson in the school gym Wednesday morning, can cut through heavy hearts on a day when there are funeral services for seven dead children. It will be a long time before things are back to normal.

"Everybody's known everybody all their life here so when there's a tragedy, everybody feels it," says Nobles, who came to UCHS as part of Robbie Pruitt's coaching staff from their star-studded stint at University Christian in Jacksonville where they produced four state championships and a runner-up. Pruitt won three straight state titles at Union County from 1994-96 before departing for higher- paying jobs in Georgia. When he left, Nobles took over and he's kept Union County on the success road although a state title has eluded him.

Football and prisons are the two things that Union County is noted for. You can't drive any distance in the county without running into some sort of prison facility. Florida State Prison is here. That's the Big House, the place where Florida's most dangerous criminals are housed and occasionally executed. Raiford Prison, almost as notorious, is also here along with Union County Correctional Institute, New River Prison, and the Reception and Medical Center, which you drive by on your way into town on State Road 231. They're expanding RMC. The 20-foot high fence is in place, just waiting for the razor wire to be attached.

Because the prison system so dominates life in this county --- most of the un-incarcerated citizens are either employed by the Department of Corrections or they've got a relative who is --- it's a different environment. The locals understand the risks and inherent danger that hang like a fog over the whole county. They appreciate the fact that when the next door neighbor goes to work every day he literally puts his life on the line. They've seen all the stories about prison riots and prisoners going berserk from all over the country on CNN. They understand that it could happen here. It could happen today. The potential for tragedy is inescapable.

That's probably why this accident hit the community so hard. Everybody does know everybody intimately. Since some loved one heads off to work and potential on-the-job tragedy every day, when disasters strike they are quick to circle the wagons and share each other's grief. That's what they've been doing in the last few days.

"These are tough times," says Nobles, "but these are the kind of people you want to go through tough times with."

When Nobles was offered the chance to come to Union County with Pruitt he resisted. He grew up in Jacksonville and loved coaching there. He had a wife and a family. At first, he didn't want to leave but he did and now he can't imagine that his life would be nearly as blessed if he were living somewhere else.

To the kids he's Coach Nobles, the most visible and prominent citizen of Lake Butler and Union County. To everybody else, he's Buddy, the good man they know who coaches the football team, shares his Christian faith and loves the killer ribs down at Rhodes Barbeque on the shores of Lake Butler. Yes, there is a real lake.

The population that isn't incarcerated lives for its high school sports teams. They love the Union County Tigers. They're proud of every boy and every girl who puts on that purple and gold uniform to represent them. Every win is a good win. Every loss is shared by the whole community.

It's the football team that is the greatest source of pride. All you have to do is take a look at the beautiful stadium back behind the gym. No run-down splintery wooden bleachers here. The grass is manicured and cared for year round. There's even a jumbotron in the south end zone.

Success in football has put Union County on the map for something other than another high profile prisoner sentenced to life at The Big House or the protest of another execution. In a county known for housing the dregs of Florida society behind bars, football is the one constant positive. It lifts the entire community and the locals never forget the heroes they've known since they were little guys strapping on a helmet for the first time.

Gerard Warren is one of their heroes. He was a man among boys who helped get that three-year run of state championships started before he left to play for the Gators. Now he plays defensive tackle for the Denver Broncos. In Gainesville and Denver they know him as Big Money. Kids in Lake Butler just call him Money while the adults still know him as Gerard. He still comes back home to Union County where he's just a bigger and richer version of the kid they've always known.

Andrew Zow is another Union County alum for whom football was his ticket out of town. He went off to the University of Alabama where he quarterbacked the Crimson Tide to a Southeastern Conference championship in 1999. He's on the Bama coaching staff now but he still makes it back home as often as he can. Even though the locals are probably divided 60-40 Gators-Seminoles, they still appreciate Andrew and they are proud that one of their own has found success. He's always welcome back home.

C.J. Spiller is the latest Union County hero to make it big and he hasn't even moved on to college football yet. He's a US Army All-American, a five-star rated running back with feet like Fred Astaire, Elvis-like hips and the extra gear like the 250 mile per hour dragsters at the Gainesville Dragstrip that you can hear all the way to Lake Butler on GatorNationals weekend. Spiller is rated the second best running back in the nation by Scout.com and he's been at the heart of an intense recruiting campaign that has seen the who's who of college coaching make regular trips to Lake Butler.

Before the tragic accident last week, Bobby Bowden, Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll all caused an uproar when they stopped in for their final in-home visits with Spiller and his mom, Patricia. The three coaches were greeted like rock stars at UCHS before they made their way to C.J.'s home where an uncle did the cooking while the coaches spent the evening trying to convince C.J. and his mom that they have all the necessary ingredients for long term success.

There was plenty of food and Nobles was invited to share all three evenings but he declined. He's not the one who has to be convinced so he simply enjoyed the moment. He knows that C.J. just might be a once in a lifetime talent so he does a lot of watching and notices a lot of little things.

"I couldn't believe how Urban Meyer took the time to sign every autograph," said Nobles. "He wasn't in a hurry. He was patient. He talked to people as he was signing. He made everybody he talked to feel special. Coach (Steve) Spurrier was a great coach. I'm not taking anything away from him but Urban Meyer has that ability to be talking to you and there may be four other people around but he makes you think you're the only one."

"Bobby Bowden … that was just like having your grandfather here … lovable, plenty of stories to tell, big smile on his face … just seemed right at home. He's totally at ease when he's among people and that makes a strong impression. You can't help but like him.

"Then there was Pete Carroll … there's something about him. Call it an aura, but you talk to him and you understand why kids want to go play for him. He came here and he wasn't aloof at all. He could have come here and said, 'I want to go straight over to C.J.'s house' and everyone would have understood, but he took the time to talk to our people here and they appreciated it."

Carroll had a great visit but he didn't make the final cut. If Southern Cal were a couple thousand miles closer to Lake Butler, there is every good chance C.J. Spiller would be a Trojan next year. Because it's on the left coast, it's just too far for Patricia to see the games and that just isn't going to happen.

"They're like that," said Nobles, holding up crossed fingers. "Mamas and sons are usually pretty close but it's really special for them."

Florida and Florida State made the final cut along with Clemson. Nobles insists that he really doesn't have a clue which one C.J. will choose and says he's not so sure that at this very moment, C.J. knows either. From a selfish standpoint, he says that Florida would be good since it's just 25 miles down the road --- close to him, close to Patricia and close to the church that C.J. devotedly attends every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night --- but no matter where he goes, if C.J. is happy, Buddy Nobles will be happy and so will the whole community.

C.J. became a part of the Nobles family when he was on the same Pop Warner team with Kasey Nobles, Buddy's oldest son who will be signing a scholarship with Rice University Wednesday ("They only accept 750 out of 7,000 applications," said Buddy. "He got the brains from his mama, not from me, that's for sure."). Kasey and C.J. became more than friends. They became inseparable brothers, a white kid and a black kid in a small southern town. Where you find one, chances are you'll find the other, and if it's not C.J. and Kasey hanging around, it's C.J. being a big brother to 12-year-old Kaleb Nobles. Thirty or so years ago, that would have been a problem in Lake Butler but times have changed and so have attitudes.

Change has been hastened by Union County High School and its sports teams. Football, in particular, has been a catalyst for good racial relations. Black and white kids playing together on winning teams can heal a lot of wounds and make people forget about silly things like prejudice. C.J. Spiller's success has brought the community even closer. They don't care that he's black. They just know him as a sweet natured, caring young man whose polite ways endear him to everyone he meets. In a community that reveres its high school heroes, C.J. Spiller has become everybody's all-time favorite.

"Everybody in the community has a C.J. story to tell," he said. "Everybody loves him … it's like he belongs to us all."

Spiller is the crown jewel of a class of 18 senior football players at Union County High School, most of whom grew up playing football, baseball and basketball together. He's one of five who will be signing a football scholarship Wednesday morning in the school gym with parents and family along with all the students, teachers and support staff from the school present. Everybody in the community who is off work or who can get away will be there, too.

C.J. will be the center of attention Wednesday although Buddy Nobles says that he's equally proud of the other four kids who will sign on the dotted line.

"I try to treat everyone of these kids like they're my own sons," he says. "When I can't do that anymore, that means it's time to quit coaching."

So he will watch Wednesday as five of his "sons" sign scholarship papers that will take them to new places and a chance for a successful life in places where prisons aren't the most notable community landmarks and the potential for daily tragedy isn't quite so high. They will be leaving. He will be staying and staying without regrets.

Years ago when he convinced his wife that they should leave Jacksonville for this community where the incarcerated outnumber the free citizens, he prayed for the chance to be the kind of coach who could impact the lives of the young men and women he encountered along the way. He could coach a lot of places and he's had plenty of opportunities to leave but he stays because this is a place where he has made a difference. He's found purpose for his life in Union County.

So it is that even on a morning when grey skies, cool winds and sprinkles of rain dampen an already somber community that gathers at the Baptist church to say good-bye to seven children who have gone home to a better place, a few blocks away at the high school, their football coach is preparing a good-bye for five kids who have earned their ticket out of town. For a few moments on Wednesday, the cheers for C.J. Spiller and his four buddies will be just what this community needs --- a shot of novocaine to help numb the heartbreak --- and then it will be back to holding each other close until all the tears dry. It may take awhile but Buddy Nobles will be there through it all, offering a shoulder to whoever needs it.

ALSO: View our video interview with Coach Nobles...

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