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STOVALL: Long live the legacy of Eastside basketball coach Brent Wren
Wren passed away Friday morning after a bout with stomach cancer
Eastside boys basketball coach Brent Wren, right, shares a lighthearted moment with former Eastside and Newton player Isaiah Miller in the waning moments of a Newton-Rockdale All-Star basketball game played couple of years ago. Wren passed away Friday morning after a battle with stomach cancer. File Photo

I remember the first time I encountered Eastside basketball coach Brent Wren. 

I was literally just getting started as sports editor of The Covington News. Probably had been on the job for two or three days tops, and I was in the crosshairs of one of the busiest parts of the school year sports season. 

Softball and cross country were getting set for the postseason run. High school football was charging toward the playoffs with all three teams still having shots at qualifying. Swimming was still in play, and all this happening while basketball season was just weeks away from starting. 

I was hitting the pavement to get to know the county’s six head basketball coaches (boys and girls), and before I had the pleasure of meeting coach Rick Rasmussen or Tiffani Johnson at Newton, before learning about Mack Hardwick and Justin Hunter at Alcovy and before finding out who Lady Eagles coach Gladys King was, there was Brent Wren. 

I walked into the gym, and just kind of hung around before introducing myself, as was my custom. The squad was going full tilt in full court scrimmage action, and there was no A/C in the gym. Wren was right in the middle of it all, pointing the way to players, shouting out instructions and stopping the action when necessary to go into full blown coaching mode. 

I knew little about the Eastside boys basketball program at the time. Just that some kid named Isaiah Miller had transferred away to Newton, the foremost county rival. But it was actually listening to Wren talk about Miller’s move that gave me my first glimpse at who the coach was and the kind of passion he had for not only the kids in his program, but the kids in the county overall. 

He shared with me off record that he wished he could see what Miller and then-Eastside senior Keiodre Perry could do together as seniors, but he just as quickly talked about how excited he was to see how Miller would continue to grow. 

Whenever Eastside would play one of the other county schools, while Wren was definitely keeping watch on his own players, you could still see a glimmer of pride in his eye as he watched athletes from Alcovy and Newton shine — even against his own Eastside squad. 

You see, there probably isn’t a baller that’s come through any of the three local high schools over the last decade that Wren hasn’t seen or touched or impacted in some way. His days as Liberty Middle School boys basketball coach ensured that. And Wren was the kind of guy who wanted to see everybody in Newton County shine. 

He loved this area. And this area loved him. That much is seen by way of the dozens of tributes and testimonies about the diminutive coach who had a larger-than-life heart for the students entrusted to him, both on the court and in the classroom. I was taught years ago that it’s better to let others sing your praises than for you to do it yourself. It’s the best way to tell if your impact on others is real or imagined. 

It’s clear that there was nothing imagined about Wren’s impact. While he would rarely talk in braggadocious terms about himself, so many have done it for him. 

Now the #WrenStrong hash tag is going stronger than ever. 

Wren Strong
Eastside fans show their support for Eagles boys basketball coach Brent Wren during the season. -photo by Anthony Banks

Former players, opposing coaches, coaches and teachers who worked with him before he got to Eastside. Even coaches from across the state, outside of Newton’s borders, have spoken highly of who Wren is.

And, yes, I say “is” as in present tense. Because although I got the news of his passing late Friday morning which means he’s no longer physically with us, his legacy is still speaking. His impact will never be silenced. 

The tough thing about this is the timing of it. Obviously, God kind of gets his way in these matters. But Wren’s passing came in the same week where a Newton Rams football player suffered the loss of his younger brother, former Rams track star Elija Godwin is recovering from a near-fatal javelin incident and Newton principal Shannon Buff started chemotherapy for her bout with breast cancer. 

For a small, tight-knit community, it’s a lot to handle in just a few days. When I got the news, it personally punched me in the gut and stopped me in my tracks in the midst of a fairly productive day.

Wren and I had been working on getting together with a few other coaches and teachers he’d worked with over the years to just share about his journey against stomach cancer. 

It was going to be an opportunity for people to get a deeper glimpse at the kind of infectious positivity, even in tough situations, that exuded out of him. It would give people who didn’t know an opportunity to dive deeper into the awesomeness that was Coach Wren. 

He was a private person when it came to his own personal challenges, so I took it as a great honor that he’d even entertain the idea of discussing this with me and allowing us to tell a portion of his story. 

Now there’s just the unresolved feelings of ambivalence. 

I hate that we didn’t get the chance to make that happen, but I’m grateful that he can rest easy as his story on this side of life is done and he has opened a new chapter in eternity.  

I’m heartbroken for his family and his daughters who will now forever nurse a void left in their hearts that can’t be filled by anything or anyone else because it was specifically shaped like Brent Wren.

But at the same time, I know it had to be hard to watch their husband and father suffer. And being the people of faith they were, I’m sure there is a part of them relieved to know that Wren is no longer suffering. No longer in pain. 

The reality of that, however, does little to deaden the immediate pain of loss. That’s because we’re human. And because we’re human, it’s almost as if I can feel the collective pain across the county for everything that’s happened this week, now, of course, culminating in a heartbreaking way with Wren’s passing on the last work day of the week. 

I guess this is also a big part of “One Newton.” When you’re joined together at the hip, you not only walk together in the triumphs of unity, but you cry and grieve and hurt together in the difficulties. 

I suppose if I had to say anything else, I’d say that this is, indeed, another time for Newton County to show how special it is — how loving it is and how indomitable its bonds and spirit of unity can be when those bonds are stretched to their limits. 

Right before the 2018-19 basketball season began, I was making contacts to area coaches to secure coaches’ attendance at our first basketball media day. When I reached out to Wren, at the time I had no idea of his diagnosis, and he didn’t let on in the least that anything was wrong. 

I asked him to tell me what he thought about his season, and the one or two players he wanted to bring to media day. Wren informed me he wouldn’t be able to be there, and then he asked me an interesting question. 

“I know you said just one or two players, but would you mind if I send all my seniors,” he said. “I think they’ll all play a very pivotal part in this season.” 

“Sure, Coach,” I replied. “Senior leadership. I get it.” 

But I really didn’t get it — at least not in full. Not yet. Fast forward seven months later, and now I fully understand. Wren had known of his diagnosis several months before that conversation. He knew the fight he had before him. Perhaps he even knew the prognosis. 

He knew he likely wasn’t going to be on the sidelines as much as he wanted to this season. He knew that he didn’t just need senior leadership on the court, but off of it as well. He also knew that his guys knew — even if the rest of us didn’t yet — what they were really playing for this year. 

It wasn’t just about region titles or state tournament appearances. It wasn’t about his players getting postseason accolades. It wasn’t even about having a winning record. Make no mistake, all those things were on the table. And all of those things were goals. 

But Brent Wren knew from the beginning that he was asking his players to play for much more. He was asking his coaches to coach for much more. He was literally asking them to play and coach for their lives. Because in life, things aren’t always going to go the way you want them. 

In life, every prayer won’t get the answer we hope for. In this thing called life, sometimes you’re going to have to produce optimal results in the midst of imperfect, undesirable conditions and situations. Now, with the gift of hindsight, I believe Coach Wren was setting his Eastside squad up to learn lessons far above and beyond the game of basketball. 

Every time I watched those young men play this past season, I could see the effort. I could see the heart — not just theirs, but his. 

Those boys played with an edge and passion that let you know they were leaving it all out on the court every night, win or lose. And you could tell that it was all for far more than just what or who was on the court. It was much more about who wasn’t there — at least in the flesh, because he was always present in spirit. 

Wren spent this school year fighting for his life while doing his best coaching job of his career — teaching his charges how to fight through life. Coach Brent Wren will be missed, but he will never be forgotten and he will always be felt.

Coach Brent Wren wrote a story over the last seven months that was much more important, thorough and life changing than anything I or any journalist could’ve written. He penned his autobiography by  the life he lived even when cancer tried to take him out. 

So for the life you lived, the legacy you’ve left and the lessons you’ve taught us all — whether we played for you, sat in your classroom or knew you beyond the court and classroom — though ‘Thank you’ seems to be trite, it’s the best thing we can say now to tell you how much your life has meant and will continue to mean to ours. 

Rest well, Coach. You’ve earned it.

"Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things: enter into the joy of your Lord." -Matthew 25:23