His father's example turned into a lifetime gift for Florida's Billy Napier| David Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Billy Napier doesn’t know what his three young children will give him for Father’s Day. He does recognize the gifts he’s already received.

You see them in how he operates. Napier rarely raises his voice but always seems in command.

His football practices are run with the precision of a Swiss boot camp. Napier believes in the Golden Rule off the field, but working the heck out of people on it.

Those traits have served him well, and the Florida Gators football coach is quick to say where he got them. 

“My dad was my hero,” Napier said.

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Learning from a father's example

Millions of lucky children will say or think that this weekend. A lot of less lucky ones might not. For better or worse, fathers shape our lives in obvious and subtle ways.

A friend of mine has a daughter who just graduated from college. She wrote him a thank-you note for the occasion.

Of all the things he’d done to try to raise her right, what she remembered most was their trips to Tampa Bay Rays games. Not the actual game but how her father would always stop on the way out and give a panhandler with a guitar a couple of bucks.

“You taught me to be kind,” she wrote.

My friend is still around to read it. Many of us can only hope our fathers knew how much they meant to us.

Napier’s hero, Bill, died Sept. 26, 2017. His obituary said he “took his place on the coaching staff of Heaven’s team.”

Bill was a deacon at the First Baptist Church in Chatsworth, Georgia, a town of about 5,000 people nestled near the Tennessee state line. He and Pam raised four children there, and Bill was the town’s de facto emotional ruler.

That’s what came with being the head football coach at Murray County High for 16 years. On autumn Friday nights, everybody in the county knew they’d get their money’s worth when Murray County ran onto the field.

“My dad didn’t play around,” Napier said. “He was tough.”

So were his teams. Bill Napier specialized in producing quarterbacks, and his oldest son was one of his finest football creations.

When most kids were watching “Fraggle Rock,” Billy was breaking down film with his dad. They’d discuss plays at the dinner table, with Bill meticulously diagramming the circles, lines and arrows.

Billy became an all-state quarterback and signed with Furman. It didn’t matter that Bill worked late on Fridays. If the Paladins’ games were within driving distance the next day, the Napier family would be there.

Bill guided his son through the bumpy early years of his career. From Clemson to South Carolina State back to Clemson to Alabama to Colorado State back to Alabama to Arizona State, Billy always knew where to turn.

Then Bill called the family together during a family vacation in 2013. He said he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the neurodegenerative condition commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Billy’s brain immediately kicked into game-planning mode. Who’s the leading doctor? What’s the best treatment plan? “We’re gonna beat this,” he said.

There is no beating ALS.

“Every door I opened,” Billy said, “got shut right back in my face.”

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Newly hired Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier does the Gator Chomp to the fans as he and his family arrive at The Swamp, outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville Dec. 5, 2021.

Bill Napier never cracked. The incurable frustration of battling ALS got his son.

“I was not a good husband. I was not a good father, and I was an average coach,” Billy said.

During one visit home, Bill sat his son down.

“You’ve got to get your act together, OK?” he told Billy. “We’re not going to complain. We’re not going to make any excuses. I’m going to try to find a way to make a difference.”

Bill Napier had become the offensive coordinator at Dalton High, and he also taught driver’s education. He kept doing that until he could no longer maneuver into the passenger seat.

Bill relied on a golf cart to get around practice. As his condition deteriorated, he’d call plays from a wheelchair. He established a scholarship endowment that helped Murray County athletes go to college.

Bill wasn’t trying to become a hero. He just wanted to keep living the life he loved. But his son learned a whole new definition of toughness.

“It changed the way I coached,” Billy said. “It changed everything about who I am.”

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When Bill became too weak to coach, he’d still sent out a group text message — inspirational sayings or Bible verses — to about 400 people every day.

One message he’d always preached was, “Go out there and represent.” Whether it’s your school or your town or your family, represent yourself in a way that might lead a child to write you a thank-you note years later.

“He taught me life is about people,” Billy said. “I think we play a great game. Football’s a great game. And it’s a game about people.”

This weekend is when we stop to think about such things. If your dad’s still around, you can wrap him a present and maybe take him out to eat.

If he’s not, you can think about all the things he gave you. Billy Napier knows those gifts can last a lifetime.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley