Cancer Forces Bauxite Principal To Retire; Doctors Say Harrell Is Dying
Tall, skinny, and with a little more fragile appearance than normal, Coach Al Harrell set down in the office chair and opened up his heart.
With co-worker and friend Coach Jon Watson by his side, Harrell struggled at times to hold back the tears. After 52 years of living, the man that has dedicated his life to mentoring youth — both as a sports coach and administrator for the Bauxite School District — was told that his body, which began aching severely recently, is dying.
On days that the stage IV prostate cancer becomes too much to bear, he understands the hard decision he made and why he picked up and packed with his belongings the paper weight on the desk that reads, "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender."
Harrell has faced adversity before, but this time, this disease he fights is proving to be the most difficult challenge. It has forced him to make heart-wrenching decisions.
As he leaned back in the chair, often fighting off tears, Harrell told The Saline Courier why he chose to wave goodbye to the Bauxite Middle School; a place in which he was instrumental on establishing and setting administrative roots.
"I just can't put in the time this job requires anymore," he said. "I've missed more days of work this year than I have in my entire career. If you add 23 years up, I haven't missed that many days. You just can't do this job missing work this much. It's not fair to the people here."
The Man That Got Into The Head Of A Legend
Born across "the river" — the State of Mississippi specifically — Harrell said he was actually raised a few miles west of the Mississippi River in Vidalia, La. Like many boys growing up in the south, the young Harrell had a strong passion for sports, particularly basketball, baseball and football. Though he said "I wasn't a great athlete" his high school football coaches felt confident enough to place him in two positions, as a linebacker on the defense and tight end on the offense.
After graduating from Vidalia High School in 1978, Harrell was given an offer he couldn't refuse. Coach Ralph "Sporty" Carpenter, who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, recruited Harrell to play outside linebacker at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark.
"I didn't get to play very much. I wasn't a great athlete, but it was an opportunity for me to play college under the tutelage of a real good coach," Harrell said. "I enjoyed the time I was there. A highlight of my life was those four years that I spent at Henderson."
Harrell though made such an impression on Coach Carpenter that his name is mentioned in the George Baker Jr. book "When Lightning Struck The Outhouse: A Tribute To A Great Coach" as a person the legendary coach admired.
After graduating from HSU in 1983 with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education and a minor in social sciences (and later a Masters degree in Educational Leadership), Harrell got his first coaching opportunity in El Dorado as a Junior High football coach. He then headed west and spent several years in Texas, working as a coach in Longview, Henderson, Pine Tree and Mansfield. He made his way back to the Natural State, with coaching stints in De Witt and Bismarck school districts.
It was a game against the undefeated Bauxite High School Miner football where Harrell set the mark on his future.
"Al (Harrell) was the only coach that ever got in my head," Watson admitted. "You know we ended up going 11 (wins) and 1 (loss) that year when Coach Harrell brought his Bismarck team down here."
Harrell was the defensive coordinator for Bismarck and Watson said "every time" he made an offensive call Harrell was prepared. Watson admitted to being stumped.
"(Harrell) had that defense set for every play perfectly," he said. "I would switch things up and set the next play, but he had an answer for everything we tried to do. He was the only coach that frustrated me on the sidelines. I knew that if I ever had a chance that (Harrell) was the guy that I wanted to coach Bauxite's defense."
Even years later, the two coaches rib each other about there battle on the football field. Harrell said "I lucked up" on the victory over the mighty Miners, but Watson also reminded him that he "lucked up" the next year and pulled out a victory of his own by "doing the exact opposite of every play the previous year."
And Watson got his wish, as well as Harrell got his wish — Bauxite hired a new defensive coordinator/assistant high school football coach in 1998. Harrell also coached football and track for the Junior Miners. With his wife Tammy and children at his side, life was good, Harrell said.
"For a football coach, this place was a gold mine," he said of Bauxite. "You knew week in and week out you were going to win. It was one of those situations when you knew when you got it, you didn't want to leave. Only a fool would leave because you aren't going to find many better jobs anywhere else for coaching (high school) football."
He added, "I've had more fun coaching football here than anywhere else I've ever been. Of course we were more successful here and that has a lot to do with it too."
Watson said that Harrell is also the "hardest working man he's every been around."
"Hard nosed, hardest working, get the job done and enjoy the success when the job is done, and give credit to the kids that made you successful. That is the type of coach he was," he said of Harrell. "And he never complained about how much time he put in, and he put in more time as a coach and administrator than anyone I know. Up against Coach Harrell, I'm lazy. He worked a lot harder than me and still works harder than me."
After six years as the assistant football coach, Harrell was promoted to athletic director. Watson said that Superintendent Fred Dawson "wouldn't have hired anyone else to do it better than Coach Harrell." And in the summer of 2010, Bauxite had it's first Middle School facility and quickly named Harrell as principal.
The Great Leader
"Boy, you talk about a great two years. All the success that we had in football, doesn't really compare to how much I've grown and how rewarding it has been for me working with him the last two years here," a teary-eyed Coach Watson said about Harrell. "Working with him has been the best. I've learned so much."
Watson, the Bauxite School District Dean of Students who is regarded as one of the most respected football coaches in all of Arkansas, has heroes and people he admires too. And he isn't shy about his showing his respect for Harrell. The man that can intimate just about anyone with just the look in his eyes isn't afraid to let a few tears stream from them when talking about the co-worker he longs to have a friendship with outside of school grounds.
"Al (Harrell) came in this middle school and laid this foundation," Watson said. "All he has ever asked of anybody is to come to work on time, do your job as best you can, and when he walks by classroom, he wants to see a conversation between that teacher and the students, where information is being exchanged. And that they care first and foremost about our kids education and well being."
He added, "(Harrell) established the work ethic of what he expected from the staff and the kids. I've just been riding his coattails. And that is the truth."
Watson went on to say that one of the greatest attributes of Harrell is that when children were under his care, "You knew they were going to come back (home) better than you left them." He said despite that both he and Harrell are known for being tough, he said "it doesn't mean we were being mean or unfair" but rather pushed the youth to be successful. Watson said the students they mentored "come back later and appreciate the work ethic that Coach Harrell gave them."
"The funnest thing in the world is when you take a group of kids who aren't very good, and aren't very talented but they'll listen," Harrell said. "They'll do what you tell them to do and work extremely hard, and then they are able to overcome the things they aren't very good at and have success. The world opens up for them."
He added, "I hope we got the point across of what we want done. We want kids to be successful. They want to win, but they can't win unless they have somebody that loves them and wants to work to help make them successful."
Harrell means success academically, not just success in sports, he explained. He said when he got the job as Middle School principal, his immediate focus was finding ways for students to improve state and national test scores. Harrell admitted that he also put "a lot of pressure" on the teachers, and though the scores were good in certain areas, he still wants to see scores improve. It is that never stop attitude that made Harrell successful and he has always wanted others to find their own success as well, he said.
Fighting The Disease
After many days and months of increasing pain in his body, Harrell was told things by doctors that would rock his family to the core. It was July 6, 2011.
"I've got phase IV prostate cancer. It's metastasized into my bones and it is where the pain comes from," Harrell said. "That's what we are fighting right now. That's why I am having to retire."
Harrell is taking treatments at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He said the first medicine he was placed on only helped him for about three months "and then it stopped working." Another medicine only worked for a month. He is now starting a third medicine with "hope that it will work."
"It's a process that we go through and hopefully the medication I'm on now will continue to fight the disease," Harrell said. "If it doesn't we'll go to another medication. And we keep going. I will eventually end up on chemotherapy, that's waiting down the line. I just do what the doctors tell me to do, that's all I know. And I pray a whole lot."
If that isn't horrible news in itself, Harrell has been told devastating news.
"The doctor told me I have about two more years. It could be longer, it could be a little less, we don't know," Harrell said. "The hardest times in my life right now is when I am sleeping and I hear my wife crying. I reach over and I hold her. And that is when I pray the hardest. When there is nothing else I can do, I just turn it over to the Lord. That's where I find my strength. And then she'll fall asleep."
It is in these moments Harrell fully understands about having "somebody that loves" him and who wants to work to help him be successful." He said it is faith that carries him through each and every day.
Transition And Faith
Coach Harrell may be leaving behind the building where he mentored students, but he isn't stopping his mentoring skills by any means. His lßife just took a transition into a new realm of possibilities.
Harrell said that before "I got sick last summer" a church he was attending in the small community of Lono suddenly was without a pastor to lead them. After speaking with a few church members, Harrell stepped up and offered his services for a small circuit of churches that were without pastors — in Carthage, Tulip, Waverly, and Lono.
"They are so small that in order to keep the doors of the churches open, the congregation rotates from one church to the next," Harrell explained. "I've been pastoring every since last spring. I thought that I would eventually get into it, and I am not an ordained minister, but the churches started having problems getting pastors to take them. They allowed me to preach and I continue to do that today."
Just as soon as he started his ministry, Harrell got sick. He said though he thought "everything was going right" when he was told about the prostate cancer it was like "you feel good about where you are at and then boom, it hits." But instead of losing his religion, he pulled it closer.
Harrell said that by October, he will be officially ordained. Besides preaching in the circuit of churches, he will also marry his niece and he has hopes to baptize people, particularly a certain unnamed "little boy at Bauxite."
He also said that his wife Tammy is retiring in July from the Arkansas Department of Education. She is also expected to be officially ordained soon as well.
Waving Goodbye To Bauxite And Continuing The Good Fight
"I've been to a lot of places, and by far this is the best school district I've ever been in," Harrell said before exiting the doors of the Bauxite Middle School as an administrator on May 1. "It's because of the people that send their kids here. It's because of the faculty. It's because of the strong leadership. I know this is an excellent, safe place to send your children."
He added, "You always look back and hope that you have been a positive influence on everyone. My one regret is that I used to chew tobacco and I hope I didn't lead anybody into (using) that. And sometimes I treated some kids pretty tough, and I hope they can understand that we pushed them to help them."
In retirement, Harrell said there are no plans to travel. He prefers the comforts of home and being near his grandchildren that he wants "to watch" grow up. Watson, though, said he plans to take Harrell on a fishing trip.
Harrell said that Watson and former Superintendent Dawson were "the two people instrumental in my career. If they weren't here and confident in me, I wouldn't have been able to move up in my career." He sheds another tear as he also thanked a young girl that he heard stood up in a Little Rock church and asked the congregation to pray "for her principal."
Before he waved goodbye to the Bauxite Middle School, Harrell said that if there is any person reading this story that is dealing with similar medical conditions as he, he wants to share these words:
"Doctors say I am dying, but that is OK. I am going to be OK one way or the other. If I beat this thing and live another ten years I'm OK. If I die tomorrow, I'm going to be OK," he said. "I have the utmost confidence in that and it is because of my relationship with Christ. I want to be able to introduce people to a relationship like that. There's something better out there and you're going to find it in Christ."
He added, "The only thing I can tell you is that you can't do anything about it. You have to turn it over to a greater power, and that is Jesus Christ. The power of prayer is all we've got. You think you have control of everything, but the only thing you've got is your relationship with Christ. If you don't have that, if it's not there, then it's going to be hard to figure out what makes you happy."
Coach Al Harrell and Tammy have been married 33 years. They have two children, 23-year-old Patrick who was an all district defensive tackle at Bauxite, and 29-year-old Natalie McClellan who is a speech pathologist at Pine Haven Elementary in Bauxite. Harrell also has two grandchildren, Julius McClellan, 6, and Jett McClellan that is less than a year old.