BY AARON SNYDER
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
FLATWOODS A physically fastfailing father’s words carried enormous weight to his son’s unquestioning ears.
Sam Sparks vividly recalled the scene that resonates as resolutely now as ever.
“My dad told me on his deathbed to find something that I enjoyed doing,” Sparks combated tears, “and I checked that box off.”
Charles Sparks died of pancreatic cancer when Sam was a Lawrence County senior, but his message lived on.
Sam Sparks clinged to it throughout a 32-year career that reached a conclusion on Friday when the Henry R. Evans Stadium clock hit zeroes. Russell had narrowly dropped its varsity football game, 35-30, against Fleming County.
At that point, Sparks handed the figurative athletic director hat over to successor Joe Bryan.
Twenty-two years separate Sparks, 55, and Bryan, 33, but the two are quite compatible pals who joke, carry on and toss “Shawshank Redemption” quotes back and forth.
“I guess I’ll just miss my friend,” said Bryan, echoing “Shawshank’s” Ellis “Red” Redding’s sentiments about Andy Dufresne. But Bryan knows Sparks is just a text or call away. “I’m just hoping I can fill his shoes a little bit,” Bryan said. “I’m truly honored to be able to take this position. I’m very blessed to be mentored by the best athletic director in the state of Kentucky.”
Sparks was named just that — the Athletic Director of the Year — for 2016-17.
For the last three months, he’s shown Bryan the ropes. Bryan has been in education for 10 years. He taught special education and coached basketball until replacing those duties with this full-time spot.
For the most part, Bryan plans to follow the Sparks approach, one that was extraordinarily effective for 17 years.
“The job he does is a direct reflection of the person he is,” Bryan said. “He’s such a good person. He cares about others. That’s the way he treats his job. He cares about coaches, he cares about student-athletes and he wants the best for them. That’s what’s made him an excellent athletic director.”
Mandy Layne can attest to those statements. She’s been the girls basketball coach since 2009.
“He’s the best in the business,” said Layne, who directed the Lady Devils to a 16th Region title in 2016. “He’s done so much for me, guiding me on how to be a successful coach. He’s also always been a friend to me, always cared. From the very beginning to the end, he was one of my biggest fans.”
T.J. Maynard returned to his alma mater as the head football coach in 2014. Sparks’ presence was a factor.
“By far, he is one of the main reasons that I am here,” Maynard said. “He has been a great ambassador, not only for Russell schools, but for the 16th Region and down at the state (tournaments). You won’t find a better man than him.”
But matched alongside him is an even better woman, so says Sam.
“None of this is possible without a good, supportive wife,” Sparks said on Friday.
Cynthia Sparks has often been the first face seen at Russell sporting events since 2000. A teacher, Cynthia and Sam have “been through this job arm-inarm,” Sam said.
“Knowing that you have someone that supportive with you as your life partner, that’s a great feeling,” he added. “I’m lucky to have her.”
Married for 30 years and 10 months, Sam and Cynthia are parents to James and Samantha. James, 28, is a collaborative pianist for Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Samantha, 27, is a reading specialist at Mary C. Snow Elementary in Charleston, West Virginia. She played college softball at Morehead State.
Sam’s mother, Dorothy, resides in Lawrence County.
Sam said the goal, “whenever Cynthia retires, is to relocate there and build a house.”
“I think she’s more excited about my retirement than Cynthia and I are,” Sparks grinned about his mom’s happiness. “We’ll farm a little bit, have some horses, kinda relax a little bit. You go at this pace for so long, it’ll be hard to adjust and dial it down, but we’re looking forward to getting out in that area.”
That’s where it all started for Sparks. Following four years at Milligan College, Sparks returned to Lawrence County, from where he graduated.
He taught and coached there for five years before assisting coach Ron Reed at Russell for two. Sheldon Clark then named Sparks its head basketball coach. He led the Cardinals for two seasons. Russell came calling again, so Sparks served as the boys basketball boss for five years. He then made the jump from the sideline to AD.
Sparks played under Reed’s tutelage for one season at Lawrence, which coincided with his dad’s bout with pancreatic cancer. A lifelong friendship blossomed.
At Milligan (Tennessee), Sparks assisted Reed on the hoops bench. Sparks also played baseball for the Buffaloes.
“(Reed) kinda literally saved my life and got me down there to help him coach,” Sparks said. “Other than my parents, anything I’ve done professionally is a direct result of him giving me a chance.”
Sparks and Russell later returned the favor, granting Reed the chance to take charge of the girls basketball program. He did so for one season (2008-09).
“Knowing tonight, that it’s over, that it’s the last event you’re going to do, to say that it’s not emotional or that you don’t get reflective wouldn’t be true,” Sparks said during halftime festivities on Ivan McGlone Field. “It’s been mixed emotions.”
While the abundance of district, region and even state trophies (2005 football, 2014 & ’16 tennis doubles crown) infiltrated Sparks’ meandering mind on Friday, the people trumped the events, he said.
“I coached Phil Ratliff at Lawrence,” Sparks referred to the late former Bulldog who became a successful assistant college football coach before his passing in 2015. “I thought about him a lot today. I had great kids at Sheldon Clark. I’ve had a great time here. Working with Ivan McGlone ... but I can’t start naming names.”
Joe Hampton, Lewis County’s athletic director, “collects pictures like none other,” Sparks said, and he shared some classic photos with Sparks.
Sparks said he doesn’t envision totally severing ties with high school athletics.
“I’m still going to check scores, I’m still going to read stories, I’ll still read (sports writer) Zack Klemme’s tweets. ... I’ll stay in touch in some way. I’ll volunteer in coaching or, heaven forbid, officiating,” he said with a smile.
Sparks is completely comfortable with handing the reins to Bryan.
“Doing this job, you’ve gotta be a people person, and you won’t find a nicer guy than Joe Bryan,” Sparks said. “Russell athletics are in good hands.”
And if Bryan, or anyone else for that matter, ever seeks advice from Sparks, he’ll likely offer up some familiar words.
“Enjoy what you do,” he said. “No one has enjoyed what they’ve done any more than I have. I’ve been blessed.”
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