Friday night lights seem to often shine the brightest on a star quarterback or powerful defensive line, but in Decatur the spotlight is shared with longtime sideline official Coy O’Neal.
He’s as well-known among Decatur Eagle fans as any player or coach who has come through the program, and this weekend the public is invited to a party celebrating his 80th birthday and 65-year career pulling the chains. The festivities are at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at the Decatur Church of Christ.
“It’s a huge milestone, and I wanted people to know … what a legacy he has,” said his niece and party planner, Roxie Gernand. “I just thought it would be a good time to celebrate.”
O’Neal, who turns 80 April 16, will embark on his 65th season as a sideline official this year. As part of the chain crew, he runs the down marker at games for the middle school, freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams.
“It’s just a Friday night tradition in Decatur for Coy to hold the down box,” said Athletic Director Kyle Story, who’s been with the district 14 years. “It wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t have Coy on the sidelines. Everyone loves him.”
O’Neal’s legendary career began when he was just a young teen. A coach grabbed him from the bleachers at a football game in Jacksboro and enlisted his help. O’Neal said he “just kept doing it.”
Gernand, who lives in Montgomery, said the work is central to her uncle’s routine.
“He thinks that’s just what he’s supposed to do,” she said. “What I love about Coy is that you can count on him.”
On game night, O’Neal arrives at the stadium at least an hour before the game begins. He grabs dinner at the concession stand and often visits with friends between bites, but as the team takes the field, O’Neal plants himself on the sidelines. He often stands with one hand on his hip, the other on the down marker and his eyes fixed on the field.
O’Neal graduated from Decatur High School in 1954, and although he did not earn a treasured letter jacket as a student athlete, he has received several in the years since in honor of his work.
Throughout the years his reliable presence has been recognized statewide and even nationally. “Texas Country Reporter” did a story on him in 2006, and American Profile published his story as a Hometown Hero in 2004. That article was later included in a 2007 book, “Hometown Heroes,” by Publishing Group of America.
The Messenger also featured O’Neal in 2008 as he completed his 60th season on the sidelines.
For many years, O’Neal has said “just one more season” – but no one anticipates he’ll quit anytime soon.
Gernand said she previously worried about his safety being stationed so close to the action, but “I decided that if something happened to him then he would go out of the world doing what he loved.
“If he can do it, and wants to do it, then why not?”