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John Kirby showered with memories, laughs at Eastern retirement ceremony

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By Bob Sutton

Special to The Alamance News

Community members and school officials gave countless thank-yous to ongoing Eastern Alamance football coach and athletics director John Kirby during a retirement celebration Sunday afternoon.

Kirby had a similar message, sending it in the opposite direction.

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“You guys have touched my life and done so much for me, it has been easy,” Kirby said.

Kirby spent 39 years teaching and coaching, first at Woodlawn Middle School and then for 32-plus years at Eastern. He racked up accolades, coaching victories, and admirers.

Many of those attended the celebration at the school, with an hour-long ceremony filled with special memories and plenty of laughs.

Ed Hooks, mayor of Mebane, said it was like old home days.

“It shows how much John is loved,” Hooks said, pointing out a legacy that made Kirby “more than a coach, more than an athletic director to us. . . He taught us the true meaning of sportsmanship and integrity.

Many past players, coaching colleagues, principals, current school district officials, and community members were on hand to honor the 1980 Eastern graduate.

Tal Jobe, an Eastern icon whose name is on the school’s gym, said Kirby’s personality created an endearing environment in classrooms and on athletic fields.

“Coach Kirby comes from the finest of stock,” Jobe said.

Jobe was an assistant football coach, recalling when Kirby was on the roster as a player. Later, they became colleagues.

“He has always been fun,” Jobe said. “He’s always happy, and he’s always doing things to make others happy.”

JoAnne Hayes, a retired principal at Eastern, first met Kirby nearly 45 years ago when she took a position at the school and he was beginning his senior year.

What she realized then is still true today.

“Everyone in the school knew John,” Hayes said. “Bringing a lot of life wherever he went.”

After graduating from East Carolina, Kirby was back in Mebane. He became Eastern’s in-school suspension coordinator and later an exceptional children instructor.

As the first female high school principal in an Alamance County school, Hayes said she knew Kirby “had my back.”

Later, she had his. The Eagles went through a winless football season in 2004. There was a group of disgruntled fans who wanted a coaching change.

Hayes made it clear that wasn’t in the works. Eastern’s turnaround was dramatic.

“It lit a fire under him,” Hayes recalled. “He was absolutely determined that’s never going to happen to us again.”

By 2006, the Eagles were conference champions and East Region runners-up. They played in state championship games in 2009 and 2010.

[Story continues below photos.]


EASTERN’S JOB KIRBY RECEIVES ACCOLADES THROUGH THE YEARS

Eastern football coach John Kirby during a special recognition by Mebane’s city council in 2021 after he was named the outstanding male coach of the year by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

Former long-time Eastern football coach John Kirby welcomes the new coach, Mitch Mitchener, during a  welcoming ceremony at Eastern earlier this year.

In 13 different seasons, he received various Coach of the Year honors. He oversaw more than 290 career football victories.

Beginning in 2005, Kirby said there was a spiritual element that became central to the program. He said devotions made a difference.

“I really think that was the void we were missing,” he said, adding that it also became important to have players’ mothers more involved in team activities.

 

Tributes pour in

A portion of a video tribute was played during the ceremony. It included former Eastern players from various eras.

For instance, Greg Harris from the 1990s looked not far removed from playing shape. There were brothers Ali Lamot and John Lamot, who both went on to play for NCAA Division I football programs.

And Zack Littell, who at the time his clip was shown Sunday in the auditorium he was in Baltimore pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays in a Major League Baseball game.

Among those offering a video message was J.T. Kirby, the longtime coach’s son who played for the Eagles and is an assistant coach. For the past decade or so, like many of Kirby’s associates and friends, he admitted that there were doubts that “this day would actually happen.”

Now that retirement has arrived, the younger Kirby displayed the type of quip that would make the old man proud.

“Find something to do so you don’t drive mom crazy at home,” J.T. Kirby said.

Lisa and John Kirby also have a daughter, Lauren.

Mitch Mitchener, a former Western Alamance player and coach, has been hired as Eastern’s new football coach. Brad Costa, a former boys’ basketball coach at Eastern, has been tapped as the next A.D.

Hooks, who read a proclamation from the city, said Kirby directed and participated in a golden area of sports programs in Mebane.

“Thank you for being the heart and the soul of our athletic community,” he said.

Many of the speakers considered Kirby’s impact to extend far beyond the football field. His role and approach uplifted so many, they said.

“I think John Kirby has done more good in the Mebane community and at Eastern High School than any person,” Jobe said. “He always took the high road. John made everybody feel special, happy, loved. . . Thanks for 39 years of giving our community what you have given in such a special way.”

Hayes said Kirby has a knack for being surrounded by the right people. She expects that to continue.

“I hope you find as much happiness and joy that you brought to others,” she said.

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