BYRDSTOWN – When Brittney Garner was a freshman in high school, she asked the Pickett County football coach if she could play on the school’s new football team.
He coached her in basketball, and he told the 5-foot-6 Garner she didn’t have the right build for football.
Eleven years later she finds herself in the unlikely position as the Bobcats’ head coach. Garner is believed to be the first female head football coach at the high school level in Tennessee.
“I never, ever dreamed that I would be head football coach, but I’m glad I am,” Garner said. “I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity.”
Garner and Jeff Holt shared the head coaching responsibilities at the beginning of the season, but Holt was dismissed for undisclosed reasons last week.
That put Garner on her own in last week’s 35-12 loss at Stone Memorial.
“If it wasn’t for her, the boys wouldn’t be playing football because nobody else with the certifications really wanted to do it, I guess,” said Cheyenne Tompkins, a waitress at Farmhouse Restaurant who graduated from Pickett County last May. “So it’s awesome that she’s doing that. She’s got a big heart.”
Pickett County isn’t an easy place to coach. It’s a poor, rural county. Home games are played in the outfield of the baseball diamond.
Byrdstown is a small town north of Cookeville near the Kentucky state line. The 2012 census listed the population at 806. Enrollment at the Class 1A school is 250. There is one stoplight in town – a caution light, actually.
The Bobcats have gone 3-51 the past six seasons, including this year’s 1-3 start. There are just 23 players on the team.
Garner, 25, also played softball for the Lady Bobcats for her freshman and sophomore years before finishing her last two years at Clinton County, Ky.
She returned to Pickett County as a softball coach and a Spanish teacher. She jokes that most of her football experience is from the Madden video games.
But Byrdstown is home for Garner and she didn’t want Pickett County’s season to end after the third game because she knows how much the kids love having a team.
“I would have been devastated if my season had been cut short,” Garner said.
So she will be on the sideline in Friday’s game against Monterey at Tennessee Tech and with the Bobcats the rest of the season. Former head coach O.B. Caudle has returned to help out after resigning last year.
“We’re the type of program that’s been seeking a little bit of love and she showed about as much as anybody could give so we took that to the heart,” Bobcats quarterback/linebacker Ben Neal said. “It felt good. She’s very encouraging. My first quarterback game I threw two picks and she always told me to keep my head up. No matter what, she was always positive, positive, positive.”
Pickett County director of schools Diane Elder has received text messages from all over the state since word got out that Garner is Tennessee’s first female head football coach. It caught Byrdstown by surprise.
“Is it real? That’s the reaction,” Elder said. “Is it really real? And, yes, it is. Brittney is a very enthusiastic coach. She’s been in sports all her life. And she’s been a wonderful softball coach.”
Garner isn’t the first Pickett County female to get in the football headlines. Samantha Harden, who graduated two years ago, was a lineman for the Bobcats.
“It’s pretty exciting because Byrdstown is not known for really anything but basketball,” said Harden, a volunteer assistant lineman coach and college student. “Not being anti-basketball, but it’s kind of cool. Hey, we’ve got a girl football coach.”
Pickett County has won five state titles in girls basketball and two in boys basketball. A framed newspaper clipping of the Lady Bobcats’ fourth consecutive state title in 1980 hangs on a wall in the Dixie Café, where Gloria Storie works as a waitress.
But it’s football season now and she thinks it’s great that Garner is the state’s first female head coach.
“It’s amazing, she’s a great coach,” said Storie, a sophomore cheerleader. “If it wasn’t for her, the boys wouldn’t have got to play.”
Eric Thoman, a volunteer receivers coach who is a Baptist pastor, believes the publicity of Garner’s “first” will be good for Byrdstown.
“It’s really cool for us to be recognized for that and coach Garner is awesome,” Thoman said. “She has a good rapport with all the students and we just love having her down on the field with us.”
Garner is shy and a little uncomfortable with all the attention. She did four interviews with Midstate newspapers and web sites on Wednesday.
She wishes the spotlight would be on the players and the other coaches.
The community and the team have been supportive of Garner.
“The boys, they will come out to the hall and say, ‘Hey, coach Garner, what’s up?’ ” Garner said. “The community – I’ve had so many texts, phone calls, Facebook messages saying that, ‘Hey, I’ve got your back. I’m so proud of you.’ It’s been really nice.
“I’ve had a couple text messages like, ‘Is this true what I hear? Are you really coaching football?’ But other than that, nothing negative. People are shocked at first, but it’s not been anything negative.”
Reach Chip Cirillo at 615 664-2194 or on Twitter @ChipCirillo.