From the archive: Remembering the tragedy and miracle of Bill Gentry

This would have to be among the last columns I produced in my long newspaper career and it tells the sad and oddly inspiring story of one of the best athletes in Alamance County history whose life was altered by cruel fate. I wrote this on the occasion of the death of Bill Gentry in June of 2016. I had a lot of response to it at the time so I’m posting it here today on a football Friday and the day before a college football Saturday — both things Bill dearly loved. The photos below are the mug I reference in the story. The second one is from his days at N.C. State. Here goes.

I breathed a heavy sigh on Thursday when I scanned the obituaries and saw a name I recognized. The photo that was with it, though, was of someone I had never really known. The picture was of a young man, just out of high school or still in college. Hair combed to the side, he was the All-American boy, an image straight out of a Brylcreem ad from the 1960s, a kid already full of achievement ready to become the man in full. He had the whole world in front of him.

And I breathed a sigh again.

That was both the tragedy and miracle of Bill Gentry, who died last week at what seemed an impossible age considering all he had been through in his lifetime. He was 72 but had lived his last 32 years at the Presbyterian Home of Hawfields. His was a life full of promise turned on its head while I was still in elementary school. The Bill Gentry I saw in the photo on Thursday was close in age to the Bill Gentry who suffered a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage at age 23. The year was 1967.

He was never the same. But he authored what I believe is both one of the most heartbreaking yet inspirational stories I encountered in nearly 35 years in newspapers.

“He is a living example of never giving up,” said retired coach Sam Story, a former teammate and longtime friend of Bill’s in a story published in the Times-News in 2000. Sam told me the same thing on more than one occasion.

Lots of people did.

WILLIAM THOMAS “Bill” Gentry is without question on the short list of the greatest athletes in Burlington history. He was a two-sport star at Williams High School, where he graduated in 1963 after being named All State in both football and basketball — a rare feat then and now. His numbers — 89 in football and 52 in basketball — are both retired at Williams. I’m not sure, but he could be the only one with that particular distinction. If he isn’t, there aren’t many others.

Bill, a tight end, moved next to N.C. State University and continued his football career. He was All-ACC his senior year and headed the team’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. His friends remembered him upon his 60th birthday in 2004 as a leader on and off the field.

After graduating from N.C. State, he earned a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL. After that he moved into teaching biology and coaching at High Point Central High School.

And then . . . the stroke, or in some published reports cerebral hemorrhage. A strapping young man, an athlete still heading for his prime, diminished before the age of 25.

“His body has been decimated,” said Woody Lamm, who grew up going to church in Burlington with Bill at the 60th birthday party. “But his mind is as sharp as a tack.”

How could anything be more cruel?

THE BILL Gentry I came to know was one who had already navigated nearly 20 years of life after his body let him down. I was working one of my first Friday nights in the sports department at the Times-News during football season when I spoke to him the first time. I turned to then sports editor Bill Hunter and asked if he knew this guy on the phone who sounded inebriated.

“That’s just Bill Gentry,” Hunter said as Craig Holt, the assistant sports editor at that time nodded in agreement. After deadline, they told me Bill Gentry’s story. It made me profoundly sad.

Many more such calls would follow.

“How did the Dawgs do?” Bill would ask. He struggled for every word and was difficult to understand. He tended to ramble. But he wanted to know just how Williams fared on a Friday night, if someone couldn’t otherwise get him to the game. We always took his calls, no matter the deadline situation and tried to answer all his questions. On Saturdays, he often called to ask about the ’Pack, too.

I quickly learned that Bill was sharp, was a regular newspaper reader and had a great sense of humor. In all the times I spoke to him, he was never down or depressed. He simply tried to keep living his life as best he could, enjoyed the company of longtime friends and continued his passion for football.

Even in a body damaged beyond repair, he kept on, keeping on. And he did so for decades.

Goodbye Bill. You were a teacher and coach to the very end.

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