Coach, chaplain and more, Antwain Turner answers calling to help youth as Bethesda Academy’s ‘go-to guy’

Antwain Turner coaches the Blazers Varsity Football game against John Paul (2023).
Antwain Turner coaches the Blazers Varsity Football game against John Paul (2023).

Antwain Turner’s tenure at Bethesda Academy could have ended nearly as soon as it began more than 21 years ago.

A few months into his first role supervising boys residing on campus, the daily challenges capped by a messy confrontation had him on the brink of leaving. But out of that heated moment, he came to understand it wasn’t just a job, it was his calling.

Not only did he stay, Turner, now 44, has served so many roles that he’s an institution at Bethesda in Savannah. The only issue is by what title to greet him.

“I’m not driven by the titles. I’m driven by purpose,” Turner said of his concurrent responsibilities. “If you ask me, I’ll say just servant.”

For 19 seasons, Turner has been the only head coach of the football program he created, including the Blazers winning a state championship in November in the South Carolina Independent School Association.

“That’s his baby. He’s birthed it. He’s raised it. He’s matured it,” said seven-year offensive and defensive line coach Chris Randall, noting the team rebounded from an 1-8 season after losing key players in 2021 to go 8-4 in 2022 and 13-0 last season. “It was as much as them believing in him coaching them through this as it was in them believing in each other.”

Turner has served as athletic director and chaplain since 2007, middle school head basketball coach for seven seasons and counting, and sometimes has helped coach track and field. 

An ordained minister, this son of a minister teaches Bible class five days a week and conducts weekly chapel services. He even officiated the marriage ceremony for one of his former players. Turner’s door is open for heart-to-heart talks, dispensing life advice and being a good listener.

click to enlarge Coach, chaplain and more, Antwain Turner answers calling to help youth as Bethesda Academy’s ‘go-to guy’
Kyunnie Shuman/RDP Productions
Bethesda Blazers win a state championship

And Turner has spot duty as bus driver for the athletic teams and student field trips.

“We couldn’t run the place without Coach,” Bethesda Academy president Michael Hughes said. “He’s a go-to guy. I need to teach him to say no."

“He’s such a great role model for our young men in that you can be strong and athletic and yet a dynamite gentleman and a Christian,” Hughes added.

There’s no telling how many boys – as well as assistant coaches, faculty, staff, parents and others in the school community — have been impacted by Turner’s leadership, guidance and support over the years at Bethesda Academy, a private all-boys day school with current enrollment of 91 for grades 6-12, including about 70 for the high school grades 9-12.

“He’s a great man. He’s willing to help out in any situation. Whether you’re a longtime friend or he’s just met you, he’s willing to help out,” said Bethesda Academy senior quarterback and linebacker Triston Randall, oldest son of Chris Randall.

Turner’s wife of 18 years, Petrina Turner, said her husband is a spiritual man of character and integrity who is passionate about helping children, including in his roles as assistant pastor and youth pastor at Temple of Glory Community Church. They have three children, all boys: Jadon (age 14), Jordan (13) and Justin (10).

click to enlarge Coach, chaplain and more, Antwain Turner answers calling to help youth as Bethesda Academy’s ‘go-to guy’
Kyunnie Shuman/RDP Productions
Antwain Turner and his son, Jadon

“He’s always loved people, always had a heart for people,” she said. “Of course, he’s been at Bethesda for over 20 years, so he’s always had a heart for Bethesda and Bethesda boys, what is was then and what it is now.”

What it was then, when Turner started in August 2002, was Bethesda Home for Boys, which followed a timeline through transitions all the way back to the 1740 founding of an orphanage for boys with a mission to teach “a love of God, a love of learning and a strong work ethic,” Hughes said.

Turner graduated from Savannah State University in 2002 with a degree in business administration and specializing in computer information systems. He played cornerback on the Tigers football team (1997-2001) and headed a campus project helping youth. 

He was back in the Atlanta area, his hometown of Decatur, when told of a job opening at Bethesda that had nothing directly to do with his degree.

Turner got the job as a cottage teacher – like a house parent or dormitory resident assistant – for boys living on campus. He was 22, not much older and sometimes smaller than the 10 boys ages 13-18 that he supervised in Robinson Cottage. 

The first year, he worked the 3-11 p.m. shift five days a week. Bethesda at the time took in boys, including some who were awarded to the state because of difficult, or worse, home lives.

He treated them the way he wanted to be treated, started building relationships and establishing a level of trust.

“That was my approach rather than coming in with a bullhorn,” he said. “They’ve had a lot of unfortunate things happen in their lives during that time. Then I came in. My job was to come in and affirm who they are, really help them become the young men they are today.”

It was a tough job.

“They don’t care what you know,” he said. “They want to know whether or not you care. Those kids really wanted to know, are you going to be in and out of my life like everybody else? It was a revolving door. They wanted to know are you here to stay.”

click to enlarge Coach, chaplain and more, Antwain Turner answers calling to help youth as Bethesda Academy’s ‘go-to guy’
Kyunnie Shuman/RDP Productions
Bethesda Blazers run out for their game against Orangeburg Prep.

He had thought about doing something else, including on a day, around the start of 2003, when he considered quitting. Though he thoroughly enjoyed working with youth, maybe the job, at $9.95 an hour, wasn’t worth it.

The birthday boy at a party in the cottage refused to share his cake with another boy, with whom he had a dispute. Turner acknowledged the issue but said everyone will have cake.

Instead, the boy threw the entire cake, unlit candles and all, on Turner. The cake and Turner’s outfit were ruined. Covered in cake with icing, he went outside in the night air to cool off.

“It was a defining moment for me, I believe, in my career here,” Turner said. “I questioned. ‘OK, Lord, what are we doing? Why am I here?’

“I’m walking around at night because I needed to clear my mind at that time, as you would imagine, before I do something that I’ll regret. The Lord said, ‘That’s why I called you. I called you to be the light.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks. I came in. Everybody thought I was going to knock the kid out. I just told the kid I understand. It changed my perspective holistically about where I was with Bethesda.”

“Antwain has always been the calm,” Petrina Turner said. “He knows how to handle himself in stressful situations. He’s always been really good at that.”

The boy apologized to Turner later that night. He had expected Turner to respond in anger. Instead, the adult role model showed him another way.

Bethesda has transformed over the decades to whatever kids needed it to be, Turner said. Since the COVID pandemic, it no longer has student boarders. (Turner and his family show their commitment 24/7 by living in a home on campus.) 

Bethesda is purpose driven, Turner said, preparing boys for their futures, whether the next stage is college, military service, or the labor force.

Regardless of Turner’s titles – or whether the Blazers are competing for titles as the football program endures peaks and valleys amid fluctuations in roster size, recently around 32 — his mission is the same.

click to enlarge Coach, chaplain and more, Antwain Turner answers calling to help youth as Bethesda Academy’s ‘go-to guy’
Kyunnie Shuman/RDP Productions
Bethesda Blazers

“Our coaching model is pretty easy: it’s coaching from the inside out. That’s my philosophy,” Turner said. “This is what I tell parents as well as our younger coaches: If we can teach kids how to be a better person, we can teach them to be a better player. It goes hand in hand.” 

“We do that from a model we call AUDIT: Accountability, Unity, Discipline, Integrity, Toughness. That’s how we center our program built on the five pillars of success.”

Triston Randall said while Turner cares about success in sports, he cares more about the individuals. He loves when an alumnus visits and is doing well in life. 

Asked for some of his favorite of Turner’s words of wisdom, Randall paused in thought.

“He said, it doesn’t matter what’s happening right now. When it’s all said and done, what will you be known for?” Randall said. “He kept saying that all through my football journey. I guess that stuck with me.”

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