TATTNALL COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT: Football Coach Dismissal Unrelated to Viral Baptism Video

Tattnall County removed Isaac Ferrell from role as head football coach earlier this month, but the question is ... Why?

The Oct. 24 post w/video showing TCHS players being baptized by Pastor Gary Few.
The Oct. 24 post w/video showing TCHS players being baptized by Pastor Gary Few.

The Tattnall County School District (TCSD) relieved Tattnall County High School’s Isaac Ferrell from his position as head football coach following an incident which took place on Nov. 3 as the team traveled back from its season finale at Pierce County, according to TCSD Superintendent Dr. Kristen Waters.

“I was notified that night – November third – I got a phone call alerting me to a situation which required our immediate attention,” said Waters during a recent phone call with Connect Savannah. “[Ferrell] was not fired, he was removed from the supplemental position of football coach. He is still a teacher with the district."

click to enlarge TATTNALL COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT: Football Coach Dismissal Unrelated to Viral Baptism Video (4)
TCSD Superintendent Kristen Waters.
First reported by Georgia High School Football Daily (GHSFD) on Monday, Nov. 13, Ferrell’s departure first appeared relatively routine. However, a video posted October 24 on a “Tattnall County Football” Facebook page was bolstered by complaints coming from a non-profit religious freedom foundation arguing a public school system cannot promote religion. The three-and-a-half minute video shows TCHS football players being baptized one-by-one by a local pastor, Gary Few.

As of Wednesday, Nov. 15, the video had more than 105,000 views.

Few, who is a pastor at Rehoboth Missionary Baptist Church in Claxton,  spoke with Connect Savannah over the phone on Wednesday evening.

"People are going to choose to believe what they want to believe," he said. "The district and the school have said this has nothing to do with [the baptism video] and we all know that, I think. But in my opinion, the timing of his firing is what brought this whole thing into question."

In addition to the video post, a TCHS assistant coach took to Twitter (X) and posted about the baptisms with a photo showing many of the players who had been baptized. Both social media posts included the hashtag, “#BiggerThanFootball.”

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TCHS assistant Jonah Mercer's tweet from October 24.
But on Wednesday, Nov. 15, Waters emphasized Ferrell’s removal was not related to the video. Instead, the decision was made after an investigation into the Nov. 3rd incident.

“We are in the process of investigating [the baptism video] right now and we are interviewing players and coaches one-on-one, but the decision [to remove Ferrell] was made after a [different] investigation into what happened on November 3,” Waters said while refraining to answer what the incident involved. “It was urgent," she said.

A first year TCSD superintendent, Waters said the video on Facebook was not posted by the school nor was the page itself operated by Tattnall County Football.

"It is in no way a school page," she said when asked if the district was planning on removing the video. "It's a page run by a private party, so [the district] does not operate that in any way, including posting or taking down videos. We don't run that."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in Madison, Wisconsin became aware of the video and sent an official letter of notice to the school district citing the video as reason for concern. The November 1 letter sent from FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line to Superintendent Waters (via email and standard mail) had a subject line which read “Unconstitutional Religious Coercion in Football Program.”

“We write to request that the District investigate this situation and ensure that this school-sponsored religious coercion ends immediately,” Line wrote. “The district must refrain from infusing its football program with religion, and Coach Ferrell cannot be allowed to preach to student athletes or allow a local pastor to preach to and baptize students. Student athletes have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination … It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to invite or instruct others, such as pastors, to lead their team in prayer or other religious activities, including baptisms.”

Once Line's letter was made public on Tuesday, Ferrell's departure from TCHS became directly related to the baptisms, at least in the eyes of many. Still, Waters maintains it was her investigation stemming from the phone call she received on Nov. 3 which led to Ferrell's ousting.

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Isaac Ferrell in 2019 as Windsor Forest's head coach.
"Bad timing," she said of the 48-hour window between her receiving Line's email and the crucial night of Nov. 3. "We do expect to have more details coming soon and, once we've finished the process, we'll be able to answer a lot of the questions we can't discuss at this time."

"That's part of the information we'll release once we've completed the entire process," she said. "I anticipate that happening in the near future."

Ferrell was 14-28 in four seasons at TCHS. His teams made the GHSA Class 2A state playoffs twice. He played offensive line at Georgia Southern University (1990-94) and was the Windsor Forest head football coach in 2019, guiding the Knights to a 6-5 record before taking the job at Tattnall in the summer of 2020. Pastor Few was able to give a glimpse into what Ferrell's mood and outlook was, at least as of Wednesday, Nov. 15.

TATTNALL COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT: Football Coach Dismissal Unrelated to Viral Baptism Video (6)
Rehoboth Baptist Church Pastor Gary Few.
"I've spoken to Coach Ferrell and many of the young men in the program," said Few. "There is some disappointment but they support him, the community supports him and I support him. Coach Ferrell is a man of faith and I think that's an encouraging part is to ... just to see the outpouring of support for him."

"Coach Ferrell knows that God has a bigger plan for him. He knows that God's plan is perfect and he is just trying to be obedient to Him."

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line said Waters had not responded to the notice as of Wednesday afternoon.

"We ask that the district investigate this matter and take immediate action to protect its students. The team’s coaches must be directed to cease allowing a pastor to proselytize and baptize student athletes," Line wrote in the final paragraph of a four-page letter to TCSD and Waters. "Please inform us in writing of the steps the district is taking to remedy this serious constitutional violation."

“We have not gotten any response yet," he said. "Obviously, we prefer a response and a quick one, but either way we understand they are investigating this, which makes sense. It's rare that we won't get a response at all. In other cases, the school districts will take action without getting back to us which may end up being the case here."

Waters confirmed Line's update, but when asked, she would not say if the district had plans to respond to FFRF at the conclusion of the investigation.

Although Line and Few disagree on plenty surrounding religion's place in schools, they can agree on one thing: the video's virality has brought the nation's attention to the baptism itself.

Line argues that the public are seeing a problem which needs to be addressed, as it is "clearly unconstitutional." Pastor Few, meanwhile, believes the video shows the solution, not a problem.

"We did not receive a complaint from one of these students," said Line. "It was a local person who saw this video and shared it with us. So, that's the thing too ... there are probably many more coaching-led religious activities going on [in high school athletic programs] that we'll just never know about. If this video wasn't shared with us, we would not have known about it."

The video is serving a purpose. On this, Few agrees.

"I think that's the positive take from this. My message to students is always simple because my aim is only to help them be successful," said Few. "I always point them to God's word and to see so many people talking about baptism, and not just in Tattnall County. It's around the country and around the Southeast for sure. I think it's a good thing. I really do."

Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a general assignment reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and host of Hot Grits Podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram, @JaudonSports. [email protected]

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