The annual Willie Ross relays begin Thursday afternoon, but before the huge track meet we reflect on how it's namesake, coach Ross, has impacted the Lufkin community through his years of service to Panther nation.
Willie ‘Axe Man' Ross was a successful coach and teacher across East Texas for 54 years before retiring. That is why superintendent Roy Knight says it was an easy decision to honor a man who devoted so much of his life to young athletes.
"No one was more iconic than coach Ross when it came to developing a track program for this community," said Knight. "We had a lot of kids win state championships and individual events and go on to compete in college thanks to coach Ross.
Generations of East Texas athletes have been impacted by ‘the axe man.' Countless stories have been told of how he brought together this community during rough times, and his impact on each individual athlete is almost impossible to measure.
"I was ready to give up and quit playing football," explains former Panther James Durham. "But before I got home he was there sitting at my house basically telling me you are not going to do this. That was just one of the many ways that he has touched a lot of people. He is always there for you and personally today he is still there for me."
It's not just athletes that learn from coach Ross either. Panther coaches admit they model a lot of their style after what Ross taught them.
"Probably the most important thing I learned from coach Ross in this business is that you have to treat young men and students alike," said Lufkin coach Winfred Simmons. "You have to be a role model for them, you have to give them direction and the major thing is that you have to care about kids."
Each spring hundreds of athletes run at the Willie Ross Relays and for coach Ross it seems like a big reunion every year.
"For him it is a chance to reconnect with kids," said Knight. "In this case most are even third generation children of folks that he influenced three generations earlier. So it is especially rewarding for him."
Thursday at Abe Martin stadium in Lufkin will be another running and reunion of the Willie Ross Relays.
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