By Alan Richardson
If you knew anything about Tom Duff, you knew one thing. Former head football coach Kenny Moore said it best, “He was a man’s man who loved Jesus. It didn’t matter what he was doing. His mission in life was to win souls for eternity.” Reverend Duff spent 40 years in the ministry serving his last 12 at Grace Bible Church in Buckhead. The beloved pastor and coach died last week at the age of 70. He will be missed in many ways by his former players, coaches, friends, and family whose lives he touched.
Coach Duff made several stops along the way during his coaching career beginning in 1968 in Anaheim, California at Heritage High School. He wore just about every coaching hat you could imagine serving as football, baseball, and basketball coach until 1970. The family then moved back to familiar territory in Perry, Ohio and stayed there for nine years where he coached the Perry High School football team to three region championships and also headed up the baseball program. His next stop landed him in Ottawa, Canada from 1978-1981 where he was the head football coach of a Canadian football squad. Duff came to Morgan County in 1981 and spent several years as the head football and baseball coach at Rutledge Academy before landing at Morgan County High School and Middle School as a community coach. Over the years, the talented veteran helped out as a football, soccer, and golf coach.
Some of Tom’s accolades include being named Morgan County Recreation Department’s volunteer of the year, winning the Club Championship at Hard Labor Creek Golf Course, guiding the Morgan County golf team to a region runner-up finish, and making two holes in one. He was also a talented artist and calligrapher, historian, Bible teacher extraordinaire, and the occasional magician. Over the past few years he has served the MCHS football team as the team equipment manager and game filmer.
Coach started his MCHS stint under Moore who was quick to praise his friend, “Tom was the guy in the background that maybe only the kids and coaches really knew. He was a great friend of not only mine, but a friend and giver to our children and our community. Those attributes are difficult to replace. He was loved and will be missed in so many ways.”
Current head football coach, Bill Malone, was also very close with Duff and said, ““I’m really going to miss Coach Duff’s friendship. I’ll miss his funny comments, his supportive pats on the back, and the theological discussions we used to have. I’ll also miss his perspective on wins versus losses and his honest opinion of the job I was doing. Duff had a great insight that a lot of people might have missed if you didn’t really spend time getting to know him. Behind the scenes, he was a huge part of our team. All the stuff that needed to be done from issuing equipment to handling laundry and filming games, Coach Duff did it all. And he did it with a smile.”
Former athletic director, Steve Cisson, said, “Tom was a good friend and neighbor who was always there to do anything he was asked or needed to do. That included at the schools. He will be missed at our school and in the community. It didn’t matter if it was using his calligraphy skills to put a special touch on our athletic certificates and awards, fixing a golf club, coaching golf, soccer, or football, taking care of all the football’s needs like equipment ordering and filming, he was a man of many talents. He was always willing to use those talents to help somebody out and you never heard him complain. One of his talents was hitting a golf ball. With all of his health issues, he shot a 71 last week at 70 years old. He almost shot his age. That’s pretty amazing.”
Tom’s wife, Julia Duff, shared 47 years of marriage with ‘her beloved Tom’ and they raised one son, Jeremy. The stories she shared about the love of her life gave some real insight into who Reverend Duff really was. She said, “Tom had just received news that his grandmother had died in Middletown, Ohio. It was right before the Friday night game in Fairport, and it was set to be a really tough matchup. It didn’t look good in the fourth quarter when a miracle happened. On a special play Tom had concocted, the quarterback hurled it to the receiver in the end zone in the last seconds to win the game. Immediately following the game, we had a six hour drive to get to be with family. Tom spent the entire drive reliving the game and talking about how much his grandmother would have loved to see it. She was so proud of her grandson the football coach.”
She continued, “Tom was a very talented golfer and he sure loved the game. The week before his accident, he shot a 71, 74 and 77 all within the same week. During his two weeks in the hospital, he was quick to tell everyone who would listen about the 71 he shot. Even when he couldn’t talk, due to the breathing tube, he was able to sign his score to the golfing buddies who came to visit.”
Wives of coaches also have those memories of the funny moments when the coach pulls out all the stops. She told us, “When Tom was coaching in Perry; he needed to pump his team up for a tough game. To do this, he gathered mounds of chicken poop and proceeded to spread it around the school, particularly in the areas the team frequented. He then created an effigy of himself and hung it from the flagpole. He told the football team that the rival opponent had done it. Tom’s friend was the principle at the opposing high school. When he got wind of the prank, he began interrogating everyone at his school. When he couldn’t find the culprit, he apologized profusely to Tom. Years later, Tom finally admitted to the principle it had been him all along.
I loved to listen to Tom’s sports trivia and stories, but what I loved most was when we would read the Bible together and discuss theology and how the Bible was applicable to day-to-day living. As far as I was concerned, he was a born teacher. He was so much fun to be with. The first time I met him, he invited me to a snowball fight, which was an indicator of what a spontaneous, fun-loving life we would share together.”
Son Jeremy (a superior football and soccer player at MCHS) talked about their relationship, “Dad had many passions in life including coaching, golf and, most importantly, spreading the word of Jesus Christ. He was a great dad and I couldn’t have asked for a better role model. Dad was always around and always ready to play any game with me. When it came to playing sports, dad never said no. He taught me everything I know about what it means to be a Christian. He was the most knowledgeable man on the word of God that I have ever known. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
According to the family, Coach Duff shared a very special bond with his mother-in-law, Naomi, who came to live with the couple. They all loved talking baseball and sharing their love of the Braves and Cincinnati Reds.
Mrs. Duff was so cordial and brave to allow the Morgan County Citizen to interview her so soon after the passing of her husband. She said, “Thank you for a tribute to my beloved. Tom would say he doesn’t deserve this attention, but I thank you because I loved him so much.”