By Steve Williams
There was a moment in Carter High’s spring football scrimmage against Hardin Valley Academy that created an uneasy feeling for some observers.
Carter head coach Heath Woods had erupted.
“Easy, coach” was probably on many minds, on the field and in the stands, when it happened, and understandably so.
Woods, 45, is back coaching again after suffering a stroke at Carter’s season-opening game at Grace Christian Academy last year and having to sit out the remainder of the games in 2012.
At first, Woods didn’t want to talk about the fiery moment that occurred halfway through the May 10 scrimmage at Carter, but then explained, “We weren’t very crisp. Somebody’s going to have to light a fire. That feeling took over instinctively. Then I got back to my other mode.”
That other “mode” for Woods, who has earned a reputation of being an intense coach during his 11 seasons at Carter, will still include intensity, but also an effort to stay under control and avoid aggravation.
“There’s a difference in getting the team fired up and getting aggravated,” he said.
Getting mad and aggravated, Woods said, caused him to get ejected in the first half of that season opener last year.
When he saw the two penalty flags, Woods recalled immediately thinking he had committed professional suicide. After all, the game was being played on a Thursday night and televised. Grace was coming off an undefeated season and playing on its new artificial turf. There was a lot of hype and a lot of high school fans watching from far and wide.
“I was more mad at what I’d done than what happened to me (the ejection),” said Woods.
There’s different theories about what caused his stroke, which occurred “45 minutes to an hour” after the ejection, Woods said, and no proof the two were related.
“What was so embarrassing ended up being a great blessing,” said Woods, pointing out he was fortunate to be close to so many medical people in his emergency.
He was on the phone with his wife, Kristi, and his oldest son, Clay, 13, was on the sidelines with the team when Woods said he “started feeling bad and getting light headed.
“The (Grace) gym I was looking at didn’t move, but the sky was green and the ground blue.”
Hillary Stanley, Carter’s athletic trainer from Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic, was the first to assist Woods, who said he had become deaf in his right ear.
“I remember seeing Joe Henderson (Knox County officer) running toward me,” said Woods, who also was assisted by Benson Scott, Carter’s team doctor.
“I’m having a stroke. I’ve lost all my balance.”
Woods, who also was having difficulty speaking and couldn’t feel his right foot, was taken to University of Tennessee Medical Center.
“The EMT and everybody were just wonderful,” he said. “I hated to be sick, but they were right on top of everything that needed to be done.
“They didn’t care who I was. They were there to save you, take care of you. I was able to see it first hand.
“That night took forever. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Stay alive long enough to get the breathing tube out of your mouth.’
“I was very fortunate the good Lord shined on me. I thought I had strong faith until this happened. Then I realized my faith could get a lot stronger.
“Without tons of prayers, a lot of surrendering to God and all that faith, I don’t know if I would have made it.”
A stint was put in Woods’ right vertebral artery. He was in the hospital and at home “flat on his back” for two to three weeks.
At a Carter home game, a message from Coach Woods was read over the public address system to fans, thanking them for their support and prayers. He also appreciates everything the community did.
Woods wasn’t released to coach on Friday nights, but after a month, he was able to attend practices Monday through Thursday in a supportive role for the team.
“Our coaching staff was terrific through all this,” said Woods. “I was extremely impressed with Justin Bailey. He went from a position coach (defensive backs) to defensive coordinator and having head coaching responsibilities.”
Offensive coordinator Rocky Riley also handled part of the head coaching duties.
As for his players, Woods said, “We’ve talked several times about the cards that life deals you. You’re going to have to play them. I told them, ‘You’re going to have to go and play ball, another team is coming Friday night.’ And they did.”
Woods was able to return to teaching half a day in late November and started back full time after the holidays in January. He teaches Wellness, Weightlifting and PE 1.
“I was very fortunate not to be debilitated,” said Woods, who emphasized his respect for stroke victims. “I was very, very lucky.”
He still works with neurologists and radiologists and is up to six months between visits.
As with most who experience life-threatening issues, Woods’ priorities have changed, he said. “First and foremost needs to be God and second needs to be my wife. These boys (Clay and 8-year-old Dalton) need to be third and what I do with the football team needs to be after all those things.”
Coach Woods also reminds himself, “Don’t be caught up in the rat race again. Stick to your beliefs. You can say that all day. Better make sure you live it.”