Always a Coach on the Field

Jay Cawthon quarterbacked Newton High School to the state quarterfinals and continued his playing career at the University of West Georgia before exchanging his helmet for a headset. After nearly a quarter century as an assistant, he takes the reins of the football program at Eastside High School.

by Nat Harwell

News broke in the spring that Eastside High School hired a new head football coach. This old man got really excited when the announcement was made introducing Jay Cawthon to lead the Eagles. Not only is Jay a local product and not only does Eastside maintain the family feel by promoting from within, but once upon a time, it was my privilege to coach him when he played for me at Sharp Middle School. So far as my research back to the start of my own coaching career in 1973 could determine, Jay is the only player of mine to be named a head football coach of a public school in the state of Georgia. 

Yes, this old retiree is quite proud of Jay’s achievements and thrilled to share a few snapshots of this very special player who was always like having a coach on the field, even when he was just a kid. Let me get the professional basics out of the way. After graduating from West Georgia College and State University, Jay began his career as a quarterbacks coach at Wheeler High in Marietta in 1997. He also served as pitching coach for the baseball team, working with the legendary David McDonald for five years. Jay then linked arms with football coach Rick Hurst for three years at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville and helped build that program before returning home to Newton County when Hurst was hired to head the Eastside program in 2005. When Hurst departed, Jay remained at EHS as offensive coordinator with coach Troy Hoff, where together they presided over the Eagles’ flight toward becoming one of the most highly regarded programs in the state.

So it is that after paying his dues for some 24 years, Jay now has the opportunity to continue the proud Eastside legacy as the head football coach. Now, let’s take a look back at how it all started. Jay came along before the current trend toward travel baseball, travel soccer, travel gymnastics and travel-just-about-anything teams began. He came up in the Newton County Recreation Commission, which, in the late 1970s and on into the 1980s and 1990s was exceptionally competitive. His dad, Alvin Jerome Cawthon—whom I always referred to as “Big J”— coached Jay’s baseball and basketball teams and always had him play up an age group so that he was actually having to compete with kids who were older. It prepared him ahead of schedule, with the nuances great players gain from experience. 

By the time this tall but somewhat skinny kid showed up at Sharp Middle School when I was coaching football and boys’ basketball, he had matured into a seasoned player whose knowledge on the field and on the court belied his tender age. He was as polished a quarterback for an eighth grader as I’ve ever coached, and his skills as a point guard in basketball were, frankly, astonishing. I actually have the VHS tape gathering dust somewhere of our 1985 football season, when Jay made a living throwing “flood pass right” to a tight end named Dexter Leach. If Jay threw it to Dexter 100 times, Dexter caught it 100 times. They were that close. Bringing the relationship full circle, Jay will coach Dexter’s son at Eastside in 2021.

Good as he was as a quarterback, when Jay got on the basketball court, he was simply magical to watch. Ball fakes, up fakes, pinpoint passes, jump shots, drives to the hoop, free throws that were automatic—the boy was phenomenal. This was back in the days before the three-point shot was added to the game. “There were some incredibly talented athletes here at the time I was growing up,” Jay told me. “Cousins Middle School had my good friend Tim Hyers, along with football players like Spencer Rakestraw and Stanley Flemister. We all really went after each other.” Indeed, Hyers—a baseball star who once scored 46 points in a high school basketball game—made it to the major leagues with the San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins and currently serves as the hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox. 

I recall one fantastic day coaching Sharp in the old, round Cousins gym when Tim and Jay matched each other shot for shot, and we managed to pull out the win. When that class arrived at what was then Newton County Comprehensive High School, I couldn’t wait to see Tim and Jay together on the same basketball team. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Newton coaching philosophy at that time forced players to choose a sport which did not bleed over into another sport’s season, and although basketball was Jay’s favorite at the time, he chose football and baseball. He played for coach Sam Marra at Newton, and the Rams reached the state quarterfinals with him at quarterback. Jay earned a scholarship to Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina, where he played for two years, then transferred to West Georgia. It was there that Jay quarterbacked the Braves down to Statesboro for the first night game in Georgia Southern University’s new Paulson Stadium; and it was there that he beat his old coach’s alma mater. 

“There were some incredibly talented athletes here at the time I was growing up. We all really went after each other.”

Jay Cawthon

“Yes sir, that was a great night,” Jay said with a smile. “We had T-shirts made up at West Georgia emblazoned with ‘The night the lights went out in Statesboro!’ I had no way to know it at the time, but that night would play a big part in my future. I threw two touchdown passes that night as we beat Southern 15–14, and the guy who caught both TDs was Chad Walker. When I finished my degree, Chad was on the coaching staff at Wheeler High. They needed a quarterback coach. He told the head man about me, and that’s how my career got kicked off.”

These days find Jay and his wife Jennifer—a teacher at Mansfield Elementary School—raising son Cole, a rising senior tight end, along with 11-year-old daughter Graycen and 6-year-old son Jax. Graycen plays travel volleyball, and Jax plays travel baseball, so the Cawthon lifestyle remains a busy one. As football season nears, Jay has some serious time-balancing to do.

“Well, we are so very happy to be here,” he said. “We have a great group of kids, we have a solid staff of coaches [and] we’re putting the players first and continuing the family feel that has been an integral part of Eastside High from the beginning.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that Jay Cawthon will do a great job guiding the Eagles on the gridiron. I will be watching from afar to see if, perchance, he pulls out the old “flood right pass” from time to time. 

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