Robert “Ton” Davis and T.J. Morgan are arguably two of the greatest high school running backs to come out of South Hampton Roads.
Both men credit one man for helping them become the best: Ralph Gahagan.
Gahagan, who coached at five schools from 1952 to 1989 and compiled a combined record of 251-114-21, died on Christmas Eve. He was 93.
A native of North Carolina and a World War II veteran, he began a long career as a high school football coach in South Carolina. His first stop in Virginia was Wilson High in Portsmouth.
During his 11 years there, the Presidents went 80-27-7, including 10-0-1, 9-1, 10-1 and 10-2 from 1968 to 1971, when they won three region and three district titles.
Davis played on those successful Wilson teams. Raised by a single mother, he said Gahagan molded him into the man he is today.
“As you get older, you see who were your father figures,” he said. “You didn’t know it at the time. But when you look back, you see they represented that father figure.”
As a junior, Davis wasn’t supposed to play. But a starter was academically ineligible, which opened up a chance.
“He always told me you just have to keep a great attitude and wait for your turn,” Davis said of Gahagan. “And when that door is open, you got to be ready. That’s what happened to me in high school and college.”
Years later, Davis remembered reading a story about Gahagan where his coach called him an “overachiever.” Davis took pride in that statement.
“Every time I called him, I always identify myself as the running back he had who was an overachiever,” Davis said, laughing.
In 1971, Davis established what was then the state’s single-season scoring record with 188 points. His regular-season total of 176 still ranks second in single-season scoring in South Hampton Roads.
During that memorable season, he rushed for 257 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Granby and finished the season with 26 TDs and more than 1,200 yards. He was an All-Tidewater selection who led Wilson to the Group AAA Eastern Region title before it lost to eventual state champion T.C. Williams — of “Remember the Titans” movie fame — in a state semifinal in front more than 12,000 fans at Foreman Field.
“A lot of my success is due to him,” said Davis, who now lives in Missouri. “He was a real special guy.”
Morgan understands completely.
His father played for Gahagan at Wilson High during the 1960s. His father was so impressed with Gahagan that he moved the family into the Kempsville district so his son could play for Gahagan.
“By the time I played for him, he was already a legend in Tidewater,” Morgan said. “He had coached many great players who went on to do many great things.”
Morgan, like Davis, learned much from Gahagan about football and life.
“Coach Gahagan demanded toughness,” said Morgan, now a well-known chiropractor, wellness and fitness instructor. “Like a lot of great coaches, he made you better than you thought you could be. He saw your potential and he knew how to get every last piece of potential out of you that was possible. He helped me to look at a situation and know that I could work through it and overcome it.”
Morgan was a workhorse for Kempsville, carrying the football an astounding 49 times in a single game. In 1983, he rushed for 1,942 yards as Kempsville’s ground game led the Chiefs to a school-record 13 victories, including a trip to the state Group AAA championship game. But Gahagan and his guys were denied the ultimate prize, falling to Mount Vernon 10-0 at Foreman Field.
That season, Morgan was named the Abe Goldblatt All-Tidewater Player of the Year.
The two stayed in touch as Gahagan used to go to Morgan to treat all kinds of ailments for his shoulder, knees and back.
The last time Morgan saw him was February.
“It was a great relationship,” he said. “I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Gahagan’s 197 victories placed him second to Frank Webster in all-time wins among South Hampton Roads coaches.
Morgan plans to remember Gahagan each time he steps on the football field.
“Absolutely,” said Morgan, an assistant coach at Cox High. “I try to get the players to see the bigger picture. I try to help them have perspective on life and help them be the best that they can be.”
Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, firstname.lastname@example.org