It finally came time for Luther Welsh to retire, but the coach will always be a part of Thomson football.
Coach Welsh, wearing his gold Thomson jacket, had his career and impact on the local community celebrated with Luther Welsh Day on Saturday.
"I'm so overwhelmed," he said. "I never thought ... as a football coach, you don't think of this."
Hundreds of people, including family, friends, players and coaches, came to the Thomson Depot to celebrate the coach's career. The drop-by event, sponsored by the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce, provided visitors a chance to donate for a gift for coach Welsh.
Coach Welsh, 78, and his wife, Anne, arrived Saturday afternoon in a limousine led by a police escort. Anne met Luther in Sumter, S.C., and they began dating in March 1961. By September, they were married. They will celebrate their 50th anniversary in September.
Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell called the two the perfect example of what it means to be a part of high school football.
When the couple walked inside the Depot, they were greeted by people from all over who came to say thanks.
Inside, a projector showed pictures of coach Welsh and his Bulldogs through the years; a television played the 2002 state championship game tape; black and gold balloons were spread throughout; and the three state title trophies coach Welsh won at Thomson sat on a table.
For more than half a century, coach Welsh has patrolled the sidelines. He led the Bulldogs in two different stints for a total of 19 seasons and ended his coaching career with more than 300 victories. He led Thomson for one final season in 2010, and the Bulldogs went 9-3 with a playoff victory just one year after posting his only losing season with the school.
He is battling cancer for the second time, and longtime assistant John Barnett, who dropped coach Welsh off for chemo treatment last week, said it's going as well as it can. Coach Welsh's youngest daughter, Andrea, said her father has regained 13 pounds. Coach Welsh said he's feeling better but is still a little weak.
Coach Welsh, who was also given a golf cart with a "Top Dog" plate, plans on going back to his childhood home near Bishopville, S.C. Andrea hopes her father can return to the farmhouse this summer.
The coach's brothers, Josey and Tom, and his sister, Carole, also came.
Josey, who got to use coach Welsh's car to take his wife on a Florida honeymoon when coach Welsh was serving with the Army in Alaska, recalls growing up working on the farm. It was a place he said "kept us out of trouble" because they often started work when the sun came up and stopped when it went down.
Except, of course, when it came time for football -- coach Welsh said his father allowed them to play.
Since those times, there have been more than a few stops.
Coach Welsh coached at places such as Warrenton, Dougherty and Screven County, but Thomson is special.
He joked that it must have been a good experience because he wanted to come back and Thomson let him return in 1999 for his second stint as Bulldogs coach. He first coached at Thomson from 1984 to 1990 and won state titles in his first two seasons.
Through the years, coach Welsh has coached more than a fair share of players, and some returned to honor him on Saturday.
The Minnesota Vikings' Jasper Brinkley stopped by, and Leroy Cummings, a player on the 2010 squad, smiled when he thought about the time coach Welsh turned his hat, got in the three-point stance and ran at Cummings.
"And I felt it," Cummings said.
Deon Palmer, quarterback of the 2002 state championship team, said coach Welsh is the toughest man he knows, and he fondly recalls coach Welsh making the offense run a play 30 times until it was done right.
Barnett said coach Welsh wouldn't ask an assistant to do something he wouldn't do, even if it meant cleaning bathrooms or sweeping floors.
But behind all the hard work, Barnett said, there is a caring man with a heart as big as a basketball.
Hopefully, coach Welsh gets to return home soon to the farmhouse, but it seems he's simply going from one home to his first.
"He'll have a few years to take it easy, even though that's not his style," Barnett said. "He's quite a man."