By MARINA WATERS
It took him a second to remember the quickest way to the football field. But in all fairness, for the 6-foot, 1-inch former safety for the Dallas Cowboys, the walk from the David Crockett High School front office to the stadium is somewhat new. And so is his new position as the Pioneer’s head football coach.
“I walk around the school and everybody’s so happy-faced,” Gerald Sensabaugh said, smiling at how welcoming the community has been. “People were just offering me their lunches while they were eating. They’re like, ‘Are you hungry? We don’t have anything, but you can have this.’ Man. It’s just a real warm welcoming.”
Jonesborough has been buzzing with the news of Sensabaugh’s new post since it was announced on Jan. 16. Crockett held a meet and greet the following night in the school library where folks peeked over bookshelves to get a look at the new head coach. Meanwhile, two billboards in town show the former NFL footballer in his Dallas jersey with large letters saying, “Welcome to Pioneer Country.”
And now, looking out onto the patchy, almost-green Crockett football field surrounded by pasture land, it isn’t exactly a glorious scene on a Thursday morning in January. But for Sensabaugh, he doesn’t see the field or the program as something small or needing to be fixed — he sees it as an opportunity.
“I know the repertoire around here at Crockett,” Sensabaugh explained, still gripping the football used as a prop for a photo earlier. “They say, ‘It’s just Davy Crockett. It’s a small school. Why would you go there?’ And it’s really not a small school. The community is doing their best to put a lot of enthusiasm in their athletics. And that’s what I really like about this program.
“I wanna come to Crockett and bring a winning tradition to Crockett. I wanna win as many games as possible. I can’t promise anything, but I can tell you — I’m gonna give it my all. We can do big things here.”
Sensabaugh spent his NFL career playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Dallas Cowboys. He also has a cousin, Coty Sensabaugh, who now plays for the New York Giants and who has worked with organizations like the nonprofit “Soles 4 Souls” to grant aid to children in the Dominican Republic. But of all the places the new Pioneer head coach has lived and could have chosen to begin coaching, the Kingsport native was drawn back home.
“I have a pretty good name here,” Sensabaugh said. “I‘d kind of rather influence a community that I’m from before I wanted to venture out. That’s why I like to talk to my cousin Coty. He does a lot of stuff overseas. I’m like, ‘I’ll handle back home. We can do what we can with our hometown and you go overseas and do what you can and impact the whole world.’ I try to focus on keeping our community up and letting everybody know about Kingsport and the Tri-Cities area.”
But Sensabaugh’s time in the NFL holds unforgettable memories — like the time he intercepted a pass from Peyton Manning during Jacksonville’s game against the Indianapolis Colts (a story he shared with the crowd during the night of the meet and greet at Crockett). He said the play launched his career and meant so much to him that he had the moment painted and it now sits proudly in his home.
His career also included the moment he discovered another dream of his — one he hadn’t completely realized until an interview with a college student in Jacksonville.
“He asked me what I plan to do after my career’s over,” Sensabaugh recalled. “And I started thinking, ‘I really wouldn’t mind getting into coaching.’ I still have it on DVD. My oldest son, he was like 6 months at the time. My 10-year-old, he was so little. I could see him in the background and he was tiny. There’s actual video footage. But I was just like, ‘Man. I really want to get into coaching one day.’”
From the moment the Crockett coach realized his new aspiration, playing among the world’s top football players and coaches gave him a new perspective—and those plays still swirled around in his mind as he led the way back towards the front office.
“I started paying attention to more details of both sides of the ball, learning ‘Why are we doing this?’”, Sensabaugh explained. “My first three years, I was just trying to make a big name for myself as much as possible. My last three years I was more focused on, ‘Hey, why is Jason running these routes like this? Why do they keep attacking me everytime I get in this formation?’ You learn the ins and outs of the game.”
Sensabaugh is well-aware his students aren’t playing on the professional level from which he absorbed so much information, but he’s ready to use it in a way that will apply to his athletes.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure these kids are coached well and that I implement a system that they can adapt to,” Sensabaugh said. “If some kids can be pushed harder than others, I’m gonna try to max them as much as I can. I don’t want to have a ceiling on any kid.”
But the head coach’s sights aren’t just set on football in his new role; before the NFL, Sensabaugh was a Kingsport kid trying to figure out his life. Now he’s also ready to instill the lessons he learned before playing professional football became a reality.
“When Coach Clark and Coach Barrett (of Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport) talked me into playing football, my one goal was to get to college. With a 1.5 GPA, that’s pretty unlikely,” Sensabaugh said. “Colleges weren’t giving me scholarships because I was borderline. I quit when I was in 10th grade. I absolutely had no love for the game. I hated the game of football. They just said, ‘You have some talent, maybe you can get a scholarship, maybe not, but if you come out here, it’s at least an opportunity.”
“It’s more about the kids It’s not about football. Football is just another tool. It’s not everything. That in there is more important than out there on that field,” Sensabaugh said, pointing to the school. “If you’re not getting the grades, that means more than some football game.”
When asked what that young man who was deciding if he wanted to keep playing football was like all those years ago, it wasn’t far off from the students that periodically passed the new coach.
“Probably like a lot of these high school kids nowadays; you’re just young, you’re still taking on the world,” Sensabaugh said. “You’re pretty lost at that time. You really need some good guidance to show you the right ways. It’s great to bring in people that have successful lives because those will be your major influences. At that age, you’re really a sponge.”
By the time Sensabaugh had covered the story of his career, from quitting football to talking with his first team as a head coach, he had made it back around to the front of the building. Just like his career, part of the conversation had ended — and part of it was still going.
“I wanna practice with them. You’ll see me out there on days when I’m wearing cleats as well, to where I can show them how to get it done and show them how I’m doing it. And they’ll say, ‘Oh that’s how it’s done.’”
“I wanna live it with them. I wanna live it with them.”