My how time flies by. Sort of like Rod Varney flew by the competition back in the early 1960s as a quarterback and sprinter for the Belfry Pirates.
Fast forward 49 years later, to when Varney graduated from Belfry to his last days as principal at his alma mater.
Varney was born and raised up Road Fork (now Forest Hills), not far from where the new Belfry High School complex now sits.
While at Belfry, Varney starred for the Pirates in football, basketball, baseball and track. He later became a coach at his alma mater, mentoring many young student athletes over the years.
“The thing I am most proud of during that era is the Citizenship Award I won,” Varney said from his office at BHS. “I was honored to receive that more than anything I got from athletics.”
But sports was a big part of his life growing up in Pike County. “As a child I would hitchhike down to Williamson to play youth sports,” Varney recalls. “The Belfry area didn’t have any leagues at that time. It was okay to do that then,” Varney said of a young 10-year old hitchhiking to go to practice or play sports.
“I can’t remember not playing some kind of sport,” Varney said. “I love sports and even after I would get home from practice – no matter what season it was – I would go outside and practice some more.” Varney would shoot baskets in the snow, throw a rubber ball against his family’s chimney to field grounders or just run the hills and valleys near his home. “It was a fun time to grow up in the 60s.”
He was a 1964 graduate of his beloved Belfry High. He then attended Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), where he earned a B.S. Degree in English and Physical Education. He ran track at EKU, but a knee injury ended his career. The Pirate Hall of Famer made it to the state track meet in the 440 yard run while at Belfry.
Varney was selected as the Best All-Around Athlete his senior season at BHS and was a first team Williamson Daily News member in the autumn of 1963 after his excellent senior season.
He also earned a M.A. Degree in Physical Education from EKU and earned a second Master’s Degree from Marshall University in administration.
He began his teaching and coaching career in 1969 at BHS. Varney actually wore the maroon and white of the Wolfpack for a time when he served as an assistant coach with the late Dick Roddy at Williamson High School in the early 1970s. He then taught five years at Southern West Virginia Community College in Williamson.
For a short time, Varney left the teaching profession in 1979 and worked in the coal industry and private business. He decided to return to teaching in 1991. He served as an assistant football coach with Philip Haywood, before becoming the principal at BHS in 1999.
Varney played for different coaches during his career. He also coached with a variety of men during his career. Many of them influenced him.
“I picked up a little bit from every coach I’ve ever had,” Varney related. “I think that help mold me as an individual. I had many good coaches, who were also good people. I learned a lot of life skills. You might not have been aware of it at the time, but you learn so much from sports.”
“Work ethic, team work – there was no such thing as making excuses – you just kept practicing harder till you got it right,” Varney said. “I had a lot of role models growing up.”
Varney’s father passed away in the July after his 8th grade year. His parents had gone to Frankfort to look for work. His great aunt was staying at the house with Varney while his parents were away during that same winter.
Varney went down in the basement and was severely burned while building a fire in the family’s old coal burning stove on Road Fork. Varney had added fuel to the stove and had gone back upstairs to get a match. When he got back and opened the door of the old stove, a backdraft shot flames out of the stove and he suffered burns over 66 percent of his body. He has not shared that with many people over the years. But, he didn’t let it deter him, even though he spent over three months in the hospital.
Varney did miss his freshman season of football, but he healed up enough and played basketball and baseball later that school year.
With the absence of his father, many of his coaches became role models for Varney. He said that he learned a lot from working with Roddy and from other coaches he associated with over his tenure as an athlete and coach.
“I’ve been in education since 1969,” Varney added. “Except for a brief period of time, I have always taught and coached.” Even when he was teaching at the local community college or in private business, he continued coaching.
“I feel like I’ve had a good career,” Varney said. “If I was able to pass on something positive to a young boy or girl and make them a better person, then I’ve done my job. I think I have had a little bit of an influence on some of them. I’m happy if I just had one small tidbit of impact guidance in their lives.”
“I remember all of my kids,” Varney related. “I never forget a face. I might not remember every name over the years, but I still remember that I coached them or had them in school.”
That is something Varney can relate to. Many of his coaches mentored him during his school years.
“I feel like I’m getting to graduate for good,” said the longtime educator and administrator on his retirement.
One of his fondest memories is when he parachuted out of a plane with the famed Golden Knights and landed on the 50-yard line at the inaugural football game at CAM Stadium back in August of 2005. One of his old friends, a former military instructor, arranged for Varney to make the special appearance and bring in the game ball from thousands of feet above the Tug Valley.
He married former BHS cheerleader Janet (Deskins) Varney and they have two children, Shane and Kerri. The Varney’s also have two grandchildren, Reese and Amelia.
There is no doubt that Varney has influenced many young students during his memorable career. He is the only Belfry graduate who ever came back to become principal at the school. Varney is the 19th principal in school history. He is the second longest tenured administrator at BHS behind the late Frank Welch.
“I have mixed emotions about retirement,” Varney said. “You work your whole life to retire.”
“But, I’m not done working,” he said with a smile. “I’ don’t know what I’ll do once I retire, but I’m not ready for a rocking chair on the front porch just yet.”
“I’m happy and sad at the same time,” he concluded.