COVINGTON, Ga — They call her ‘coach,’ but Kymberli Durden’s role on the Newton High School football team’s staff transcends that moniker.
It’s so expansive, in fact, that when you ask her about it, she’ll quickly flash a piece of paper at you that contains a litany of administrative tasks, including everything from keeping track of discipline and attendance of players to passing out game and practice jerseys and coordinating game stats on Friday nights.
Scroll down that page, and you’ll find a detailed, daily list of duties that gets longer as the week progresses — reaching its peak, of course, on Friday nights when the game time lights come on.
As Newton’s new football operations director, Durden finds that producing that list to those inquisitive of what her new role entails is a much more efficient way of showing, rather than merely saying what her impact for Rams football is.
“They call me Coach Durden, and these are my responsibilities,” she said while whipping that list out.
But as Durden, a long-fixture in the Covington/Newton County middle and high school athletics scene, gets settled into her new role, it hasn’t taken long for others, like assistant coach Camiel Grant, to call her much more.
“Well, she might actually be the missing piece to our staff and our program, you know,” Grant said. “That’s because she keeps us in line, but she has just as much fire as we do. When we get sideways or start to slack, she won’t let us do it.”
That’s because Durden intensely loves the game of football. Always has. And as far as coaching and daily operations goes, she’s been involved in some aspect of it for more than a decade, going back to her time in a similar position at Liberty Middle School when the Knights were running roughshod through the NewRock League.
“Two reasons why I love this game so much, is because on any given day, any given Sunday, Saturday or Friday, any team can beat anybody,” Durden said. “It does not matter. But the other thing is that it’s a game that can make a legit millionaire out of our boys. I always tell them that if you’ll work it and do the work to be great at what you do, this game will work for you.”
She speaks from experience, as she’s been around long enough to witness some of the local greats pass from middle school to one of Covington’s three Georgia High School Association squads, all the way to scholarships and successful collegiate careers from Power Five Division I schools to NAIA squads.
And while she knows that women coaching football at any level, much less in the largest classification of a high school talent-rich hotbed like Georgia, is still quite rare — and sometimes scoffed at — she also knows that the way she’s wired has made her a natural fit for the gridiron.
“I am a naturally strong personality anyway,” Durden said. “So being out here on the football field and with these boys, it’s the best-suited place for me.”
Going against the norm
She likens her place in the game to that of 1980s track star and Olympic champion Florence Griffith Joyner, more commonly known as Flo Jo.
“I’ve kind of said I’m the Flo Jo of football,” she said. “And I say that because many people didn’t expect to see someone with her athleticism also have such femininity. I mean, she had the long hair, the long, painted nails, the costumes and all that. For many years, my signature was my blonde hair.
“Some people may not expect women who are into football like this to be as feminine. But I am, and honestly I don’t get a lot of the riff raft or disrespect, because typically my facial expressions say that I’m not having it.”
Durden has carved out a reputation among the players as being equal parts loving and nurturing while also carrying a stern and unrelenting persona when it comes to pushing Newton football players beyond their limits.
Junior Jerrol Hines can attest to this first hand. After a particular game, he sustained an injury that left a scar from his back all the way down his right leg. Hines went to the training room and was showing coach Grant. Grant acknowledged it, and nothing more.
“When he saw me in the room, he came over to me and showed it to me,” she said. “I stood up and gave him a hug. Didn’t say anything. Didn’t baby him or try to talk about bandaging. Just hugged him, and he was fine. Coach Grant asked Jerrol, ‘Is that what you wanted?’ Jerrol said yes, and went on his way, and all coach Grant could say was, ‘It’s a good thing she’s here.’
“It’s like I have a mom syndrome and a coach syndrome all wrapped up into one,” she continued. “It’s a great mix that I don’t think many high school programs know you need.”
The college ones do, though. Particularly those of the Power Five variety — think Alabama and Tennessee. And not only does Durden know who they are, but they know her too — and they respect her.
Loyalty speaks louder than SEC
Many of her relationships with collegiate coaches were initiated as she helped navigate now-Clemson freshman and former Newton star Darnell Jefferies through his recruiting process.
Durden calls Jefferies her son. Jefferies calls her “Mom 2.” And right before Newton was able to secure her services, first-year Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt almost beat it to the punch.
“I spent a trial run here at Newton last year, just seeing if they liked me and I liked them,” Durden said. “But after that, I was offered a job at the University of Tennessee. Coach Pruitt has been a great friend of mine for many years. I love him, love (Nick) Saban and have a good relationship with them. Once coach Pruitt went up to the Tennessee program he let me know he wanted me on their staff.”
At first, the prospective position with the Vols was designed to mirror what Saban’s long time administrative assistant Linda Leoni does.
“But then some of the other coaches began to see how I was able to talk to and relate with parents, particularly football dads who would hear me talk about 4-3 defenses, Wing-T and various other formations and realize I really knew what I was talking about. And it was like, ‘We’ve gotta get her on the recruiting end too,’” she said. “So it was going to be, really, a job that was getting created for me.”
But shortly after getting the Tennessee job offer, Newton principal Shannon Buff and athletic director Vincent Byams sat down and had a candid conversation with Durden.
“They told me the vision of where we’re trying to go and what we’re trying to do as an athletic department and as a football program,” she said. “And they just expressed that because of my knowledge of the game and my personal relationship with these boys in the community, that it was vital for me to be a part of what we’re trying to do at Newton, and that swayed me.”
Not only that, her heart strings of loyalty got tugged by her local athletes. She knew taking that Tennessee job would’ve prevented her from being on hand in Death Valley, South Carolina to watch Jefferies take the field at Clemson on Saturdays.
It also would’ve caused her to renege on a promise she made to three athletes still playing high school football in Newton County.
“Those three boys, one of them is Jerrol Hines, I promised them that I would stick around here and do everything I could to get them to a D-1 position to play college football,” she said. “I love their parents. I love those kids, and I made a promise and I didn’t want to leave their children. They entrusted me with them, and I appreciate that.”
Newton head coach Terrance Banks has that same level of trust in Durden’s abilities to relate and connect with the kids in his program in ways that others cannot. In the process, it gives Banks the kind of flexibility to focus on the nuts and bolts of game planning and strategy for Fridays in a way he hasn’t had during his six year tenure.
“It really takes a burden off of me and the other coaches to have her here,” Banks said. “She’s helping with all the athletics in school, but with football, she’s doing things and planning things that folks would normally ask me to do. Now, when people ask me to do something, I give them what I want to be done and then I don’t have to worry about such things that can take away priceless time from the football planning time.
“It helps me focus my attention on where we need it with our boys.”
Durden recognizes that, and gets motivated by knowing her presence can help Banks focus even more on his greatest strengths.
“Coach Banks is an offensive mastermind,” she said. “And us having developed this good working relationship really does give him the time to be even more creative and effective with putting our boys in the best position to win on the field.”
Coaches see Durden as 'rare'
Don’t be mistaken. Durden is anything but a mere errand-runner. The respect for Durden, from administration to coaches, down to kids and parents is present. And as far as intensity goes, she pulls no punches.
“I don’t want to sound chauvinistic, but it’s rare to find a woman who understands football holistically, from the Xs and Os to the stressful part and the grind part of it,” Grant said. “A lot of women might want to protect the kids at some point, or not go too hard. But there are many times coach Durden’s telling us that we aren’t going hard enough.”
For Durden, the push and sacrifice to be great, and the desire to dedicate herself to the mundane details of football operations is ultimately for a two-pronged purpose — to get athletes into college and to bring a state championship back to Newton.
“Do I think it’s possible to win a state championship here at Newton, even with all the Class 7A schools around that have more than we do in certain aspects? Absolutely,” she said. “And I think it’s because I believe we’re the most competitive team in Georgia. The reason why: we have a relentless, unwavering dedication to the art and skill of the grind.”
Whether it’s the athletes being pushed by assistant coach Josh Skelton in the weight room — a place Durden dubs “Skelton University — or whether it’s the rigorous conditioning regimen that begins at 6 a.m. each day during the summers, culminating with every player running 35 timed “110s.” That’s 35 sprints up and down the entire length of the field, Durden will tell you Newton’s work ethic is unmatched.
“I don’t know about many of the other programs everywhere else,” she said. “But as far as those in the Far East, I don’t know many who are getting up every day at 6 a.m., knowing if you miss just six days in a whole offseason period you cannot play for this team.”
She acknowledges the nationally ranked squads in Region 8-AAAAAAA’s upper echelon. The Graysons and the Archers of the world. She knows the deficits — population wise, resources wise and beyond — that exist between Newton County and schools from Gwinnett or Cobb or even DeKalb counties in some cases.
But her goal is to continue reinforcing the message to these kids — many of whom she’s built close relationships with since they were 11 or 12 years old — that hard work can and does overcome those deficits.
“The race is not always given to the strongest or the quickest, but to those who endure to the end,” she said. “That’s what we train them to do. Endure to the end. Protect this house. Know that that N on the helmet means something. It’s our brand. We realize we don’t have everything that other 7A schools have, but what we do have is an abundance of children with talent and people who will buy into everything thing we’re doing.
“If these players buy in, we let them know, you can compete with anybody, anywhere and at any time. And that’s why I’m here to remind them every day that they can bring a football state championship back to Newton County.”