Editor's note: This story is featured in the Daily Citizen-News' weekly high school football Touchdown! section. Grab an issue in papers on Fridays during football season, or stop by our office for a copy.
Christian Heritage School football coach Jay Poag and his wife, Amy, have a calendar that sits next to their kitchen sink.
Every day for more than 20 years, the family flips to the next page of the calendar and revealed is a daily Bible verse.
"We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day," begins 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.
That was the verse for Sept. 7, this past Saturday's date, except now the page has been ripped out.
Whitfield and Murray counties lost one of their longtime football coaches on Saturday as assistant coach Steve Sparks, a lifelong resident of Calhoun, passed away from complications from pancreatic cancer. Sparks touched many lives in the area, most recently serving as defensive coordinator last year at Christian Heritage.
Joining a friend
Sparks first joined the area when he left his head coaching position at Pope High in Marietta — where he coached from 1996-2002 — to join the staff of Murray County as offensive line coach under Bill Napier in the fall of 2002. Napier, the winningest coach in Murray County history, and Sparks became very close and coached together until Napier passed in September 2017 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Kurt Napier, one of Napier's four children who is now in his second season as Murray County's defensive coordinator, first remembers Sparks as one to offer a helping hand.
"When I met coach I was young, probably a freshman or a sophomore," he said. "He would have coached at Murray my junior and senior season when I was quarterback, but more than anything I remember him off the field.
"It was a Wednesday night and for whatever reason my dad wasn't around, he had maybe already gone to the church. So I was here at the fieldhouse by myself and I needed a ride, and of course he took me. That's kind of where our relationship started. It was really my first one-on-one time with him."
For Kurt Napier, Sparks became one person he could really lean on. After moving on to play football in college and into his days of entering the coaching world himself, Kurt Napier obviously learned lots from his father, but also often looked to Sparks for advice.
"Once I was off to college, I would call and talk to him," Kurt Napier said. "He was always very encouraging and willing to help in any way possible.
"As I got more into coaching, he was a big time encourager, too. He was just someone that you knew you could trust, just someone you felt comfortable with and knew had your best interest at heart. He always had time for you and always had a good piece of wisdom."
Caleb Bagley, now the football coach at Coahulla Creek, graduated alongside Kurt Napier in 2004 at Murray County. While there, he was one of the offensive lineman coached by Sparks and protected Napier at quarterback.
"He was very influential in me deciding to be a coach," Bagley said. "His love for football and how hard he worked, it resonated with me.
"One thing that gets lost sometimes since he was such a Godly man is that he would get after you, too. One time we all got in trouble at lineman camp and he pulled us out to the field at midnight to make us do bear crawls in the dark. It was tough, but it was what we needed."
When Bill Napier left Murray County in 2007, Sparks followed him, both becoming assistants at Southeast Whitfield and then Adairsville before Dalton coach Matt Land hired them both in 2010.
Kurt Napier, who saw Sparks on Labor Day, the Monday before he passed, said he was still talking football in his final days.
"We were talking a lot about memories from Murray County and reminiscing," he said. "I made sure to tell him that I can't look at him or think of him without thinking of dad.
"My dad and coach Sparks were really best of friends. It seemed like they were always together. It's crazy to think that he spoke at my dad's funeral and here we are two years later. I would have never thought this would happen."
Land, who spent time with the pair closely until Napier's passing, agreed they were meant for each other. Napier was offensive coordinator for the Catamounts as was diagnosed with ALS in 2013. The disease is known for progressively weakening muscle function. There is no cure.
"I knew coach Sparks, but not really well until he became part of our staff," Land said. "It did not take me more than five minutes to realize he was special. He coached everything when he was here, from running backs to the freshman team.
"I loved coach Napier to death, but he was one of the most stubborn people I've ever met in my life. I loved coach Sparks to death, too, and he was one of the most giving people I've known. They just worked so well together because they were yin and yang. It was like watching a married couple. They could say things to each other that none of us could say."
Sparks' giving heart was possibly most noticeable as Napier's health continued to decline.
"We all helped, but oh my gosh, what coach Sparks did," said Dalton offensive line coach Bill Mayo. "Steve was really the main guy. He would drive from Calhoun to Murray to get him in the van and over to practice to get him here — day after day of helping coach Nape.
"Steve knew that football was one of the things that kept coach Nape going and kept him alive. He was determined to do whatever he could to help him as long as he could manage. They are definitely up in heaven calling plays."
Already retired from teaching English, Sparks was ready to step away from coaching, declaring retirement in 2017. According to Poag, Sparks was still grieving his dear friend's death.
"It really hit him hard. When we met initially, he wasn't ready," Poag said. "Another year went by and he reached back out."
A new venture
Christian Heritage needed a defensive coordinator, but Sparks had always been an offensive guy.
"Sparks said he'd do anything I needed him to do," Poag said. "He told me he would take out the trash. That was just the kind of guy he was, and so we brought him on and he dove in really hard."
Christian Heritage finished with a stellar defense last season, known as "Bad Company," and ended the year with four shutouts. Sparks was scheduled to be back for another season with the Lions this year. Late into the offseason, he began to get sick.
"He was so fired up all through the spring and summer," Poag said. "He was so invested in getting us to the championship level, but it went downhill really fast. Every day it just got worse and worse.
"It happened so quick. That was the shocking thing."
Practice what you preach
Poag and Sparks' relationship goes back nearly 30 years to helping out with football camps at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Somewhere along the way, though the two didn't know each other extremely well yet, Sparks got ahold of Poag's phone number.
"Every weekend, I began to get these text messages with devotions," Poag said. "I didn't know who they were coming from, and there were days that they were so spot on and just what I needed. I thought God was sending those things."
It wasn't God. It was Sparks, and Poag wasn't the only one getting the messages.
"They would come any day of the week, but especially on Friday nights," Kurt Napier said. "I'm pretty sure every coach and probably players he knew, too, got them."
The messages were just one of the many ways Sparks practiced his faith.
"There was nothing common about him — so special," Land said. "Whenever you left him, he would tell you he loved you, and even though after I saw him for the last time I didn't get to go back and see him, there is peace in that. As a friend, I knew how he felt about me and I know he knew how I felt about him."
Christian Heritage brought awareness to Sparks' illness two weeks ago during its game against Gordon Central, hosting a "purple out" — the awareness color for pancreatic cancer.
This past week, things weren't looking great.
"We were hearing from his wife Susan a lot," Poag said. "He was in a lot of pain, but he wanted to get a message to the team. She was trying to get a verse out of him, and he could barely get it out. But it was one of his favorites, that one from 2 Corinthians."
This past Saturday, Poag was awoken early in the morning by a phone call with the bad news that Sparks had passed away.
He and his wife stood in the kitchen, and they flipped the page of their calendar.
"There was his verse," Poag said.
Poag ripped out the page from Sept. 7 and will be giving it to Sparks' wife, who has been the librarian at Christian Heritage for more than 25 years, as a gift.
Coming off a bye, the Lions (2-0) continue their season tonight as they host LaFayette. Along with many other coaches, Poag said he knows Sparks will be watching closely.
"It's been a long week, but we are doing everything we can do honor him," he said. "Hopefully we can get a win."
Close to home
Another area school was recently affected by the loss of a loved one to pancreatic cancer.
Former Northwest Whitfield basketball player Karla Brooker Motley lost her battle with the disease in February. This past Tuesday, Northwest hosted their own "purple out" during their volleyball match against Southeast.
Northwest volleyball coach Kelsey Ikerd, who is Motley's cousin, organized the event. The teams raised more than $300 on Tuesday for the cause.
Those interested in donating to pancreatic cancer awareness and research may visit the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation's website at www.npcf.us.
TONIGHT'S OTHER GAMES
Adairsville (1-1, 0-0 in Region 6-3A) at Coahulla Creek (1-1, 0-0 in Region 6-3A), 7:30 p.m.
Coming off its first win since nearly a year ago, Coahulla Creek hosts Adairsville for its opening game in region.
The Colts topped Southeast last week, 34-31. Senior quarterback Cade Bates led the team with one rushing touchdown and one passing score to Ethan Burse. Angel Cabrera finished with two field goals in the win, and running backs Austin Hernandez and Titus Underwood each had one touchdown.
Adairsville is also coming off a win after the Tigers defeated Cass, 14-7.
Last meeting: Adairsville won in 2018, 41-10
Sequoyah (1-1, 1-0 in Region 6-6A) at Dalton (2-0, 0-0 in Region 6-6A), 7:30 p.m.
Dalton opens region play tonight as it hosts Sequoyah.
The Catamounts are coming off a bye after taking down Northwest Whitfield on Aug. 30, 73-7. Senior running back Jahmyr Gibbs led the win over the Bruins with four touchdowns. Quarterback Landon Allen finished with two passing scores as Dalton has averaged 67.5 points in their opening two games.
Sequoyah shut out region opponent Osborne last week, 48-0.
Last meeting: Sequoyah won in 2018, 42-14
Follow for game updates: Daily Citizen-News managing editor Jamie Jones on Twitter @jamiejonesDCN
Stone Mountain (1-2, 0-0 in Region 5-3A) at Northwest Whitfield (1-1, 0-0 in Region 6-4A), 7:30 p.m.
Northwest hosts Stone Mountain tonight for a non-region game.
The Bruins had last week off after falling to Dalton on Aug. 30, 73-7. Its only score came on a fumble recovery in the end zone after Dalton muffed a snap. Junior linebacker Jordan McCamish was credited with the touchdown.
Stone Mountain fell in a close game last week to Lithonia, 33-30.
Last meeting: Northwest won in 2018, 46-14
Murray County (2-0, 0-0 in Region 6-3A) at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe (0-2, 0-0 in Region 6-3A), 7:30 p.m.
Murray County travels for its first region game of the year, riding the momentum of its first 2-0 start since 2016 tonight at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.
The Indians had a bye last week after defeating Southeast Whitfield on Aug. 29, 28-14. Junior Cade Petty led the offense with three touchdowns.
LFO has dropped its first two games of the season, most recently to Gordon Lee on Aug. 30, 13-10.
Last meeting: LFO won in 2018, 42-15
Ringgold (0-2, 0-0 in Region 6-3A) at North Murray (1-1, 0-0 in Region 6-3A), 7:30 p.m.
North Murray hosts Ringgold tonight for both teams' opening games in region play.
The Mountaineers had their first win of the season last week over Model, 24-7. Freshman quarterback Seth Griffin, who made his first career high school start in place of the injured senior Ladd McConkey, finished with two passing touchdowns.
Ringgold is coming off a loss to Heritage on Aug. 30, 27-14.
Last meeting: North Murray won in 2018, 14-7
Follow for game updates: Daily Citizen-News reporter Ryan Anderson on Twitter @randerson_ryan