John Walls was teaching at South Brunswick Middle School when, in the summer of 2003, the head football coach at South Brunswick High School asked Walls whether he wanted to coach the junior varsity. Walls accepted.
On the first day of practice that August, Walls conferred in a South Brunswick High School classroom with Lee Shelton, the varsity offensive line coach, who would assist Walls. But when they hear somebody walking in a nearby hallway, they leave the classroom to see who it is.
From a distance, Walls sees a man “sweating — it’s 100 degrees outside — covered in dirt, covered in paint. Just ragged.”
When Shelton sees the man, he urgently says to Walls, “I need to introduce you to somebody.”
Walls, unimpressed by the man’s appearance, wonders: “Why do I need to be introduced to this guy?”
When the disheveled stranger, who Walls thinks must be a janitor, gets within a few steps of Shelton and Walls, Shelton says, “I need to introduce you to our Athletic Director, Chris Roehner.”
Roehner credits teamwork
When Walls first met Roehner, he was in his fourth year as the athletic director at South Brunswick High School. The meeting is symbolic of Roehner’s persona and helps explain why on April 6 at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem Roehner will be inducted into the North Carolina Athletic Directors Association Hall of Fame.
“Of course, it’s a great honor to be recognized by your peers to be inducted into the hall of fame,” said Roehner, now in his 20th year as the South Brunswick athletic director. “I didn’t do it by myself. I’ve had a lot of help along the way. The support of my family, faculty and administration, my coaches and other athletic directors have given me the opportunity to be in this position and to be inducted into the hall of fame.
“Like in all sports, the team is very important. I thank all my teammates who have helped me get to this point.”
Roehner’s “teammates” lauded the NCADA honor.
South football head coach Rocky Lewis said, “I don’t think there’s a more deserving person, not just from his longevity here at South Brunswick but the quality work that he does. Everything he does, he tries to do it the right way — and do it first class. You don’t appreciate that until you’ve been at other places where that may not be the case.”
Baseball coach Mike Anderson, who has been at South eight years, season as South’s head baseball coach, concurred.
“In my years of coaching and in being at different schools,” Anderson said, “by far Chris Roehner has been night and day difference for the amount of work and caring and time that he puts in.”
Scott Wainwright, the South boys basketball head coach and assistant athletic director, said the hall of fame news made him prideful.
“It’s really a great honor,” Wainwright said. “Down here, it makes a lot of sense to us. So it’s great to see on a state level for Chris to be recognized and we get to show him off to other people. We get to stick our chest out a little bit to let everyone else see what we see on a daily basis.”
For Walls, Roehner’s years of excellence as an administrator is finally getting recognition.
“I think it’s well deserved,” said Walls, who was an assistant athletic director at South for eight years and still teaches there. “I think Chris is the quintessential athletic director. He’s selfless when it comes to the student athletes here at South. He does everything he can for them and for his coaches. He sacrifices a great deal of time so that we have quality programs here at the school.
“I just think it’s a well-deserved tribute for a lifetime of service.”
Hall of fame unanticipated
“It certainly was a surprise,” Roehner said. “Being an active athletic director and continuing to work in the association and to continue to want to be an athletic director and to continue to carry on my duties, I never really thought much about the hall of fame until maybe later on, after retirement or later in my life.
“I still consider myself pretty young and pretty active and still have a lot to do. The hall of fame, to be honest, really never entered my mind.”
“He doesn’t want it,” Walls said about the inevitable attention. “He’ll be the first one to say that’s not what he does (his job) for. But it’s definitely well deserved and I think it’s definitely long overdue that other people see what we see here at South and in the county.”
Roehner has been active many years in the NCADA. He was its president in 2016.
“He’s the lead instructor for all the law classes in the state,” Wainwright said. “I’ve been part of his teaching team for the past year and a half. He really takes a lot of pride in educating some of the younger athletic directors, and some of the older athletic directors, in the state on what it takes to be an athletic director.”
Anderson said other athletic directors often seek Roehner’s advice.
“I’ve been around him,” Anderson said, “when he’s taking a phone call from another A.D. who is giving him a scenario, asking him advice of what he would do or how they should handle it. He’s highly respected, especially in the southeast and across the state as well.”
Wainwright said his discussions with Roehner include topics other than sports.
“His mentorship towards me goes far beyond what we have inside the building here,” Wainwright said. “He mentors me on all levels. If I live my life on a percentage of what Chris Roehner represents daily and if I come within the 50 percent range of that, I think I’ve done a pretty good job.”
Roehner has been at South Brunswick for 23 years. He recalled a time early in his career when he was teaching and he got a note that an incoming principal for South Brunswick wanted to talk with him.
“And he asked me, ‘Why do you want to coach? What is it about South Brunswick High School?’ And my comment was, ‘I love the kids. I love the athletes here at South Brunswick High School.’ And it’s been a real pleasure working with them.”
Toward that end, Roehner will take it upon himself to do whatever is necessary for South’s student athletes.
“I’m sure that if you were to cut him open,” Anderson said, “you would find Cougar blue coming out of his veins.”
“He’s unreal,” Wainwright said. “He is one of the most first class individuals on all the levels I’ve been on, in high school and college and professional. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Well if that guy’s doing it, then I better be doing it.’ He practices what he preaches. He’s one of the greatest leaders I’ve been around. As a person, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who was not there support his coaches, his athletes. He is an advocate for kids to further their education. He’s been an adviser on boards here. He’s been a mentor on senior projects.”
When there is adversity, Roehner is as calming as a mother’s hand on a shoulder: It’ll be all right.
A hurricane in 2018 and football field construction in 2019 disrupted the South Brunswick football schedule, but Roehner helped to guide the program through the disarray.
“He’s one of the most flexible people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t get bent out of shape of things not going just right. It helps you out in tough situations, like the hurricanes, just being able to roll with the punches. That’s the quality of a good leader.”
If you have a concern, Roehner wants to hear about it.
“His door is always open,” Wainwright said. “Yet there’s not a minute that is unfilled in his date book. Yet, somehow, he still finds time for people. It just boggles my mind.”
Anderson, too, is awed by Roehner’s energy to do what is best for South.
“When you google or look up the word ‘worker,’ I’m sure you’ll probably find a photo of Chris Roehner, because that’s what he is,” Anderson said. “He is relentless in the amount of hours that he puts into his duties here at South.”
Behind the scenes
Walls recalled a home football game for the conference championship between South Columbus and South Brunswick. It was a one-possession game in the fourth quarter when the lights failed. Walls was sent to a bank of lights near the stands where the South Columbus fans were sitting. As he worked on the breaker box, he heard a fan shout, “No wonder the lights are out. They got a janitor over here messing with the lights.”
The good-natured comment reminded Walls of the first time he met Roehner.
“It made me feel like I had come full circle, because that meant I was doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff Chris does all the time.”
Wainwright mentioned a recent example.
“I do not know of a better behind-the-scenes guy,” he said about Roehner. “He’s currently driving the cheerleading team bus right now. He’s giving up his nights on our away games and he is transporting the cheerleading team as we have had some staffing (vacancies).”
Anderson recalled the time when he was hired to be South’s baseball coach.
“I wanted to come up on a Saturday to bring some of my personal baseball stuff to the locker room,” Anderson said. “I called Coach Roehner and asked, ‘Is there any way I could get in?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll be here.’
“So that Saturday morning I pulled in, and there is Chris Roehner out on the football field, soaking wet in sweat and elbow deep in mud. He had been out there working, changing the irrigation heads for the football field.”
That is unsurprising to Walls.
“He does everything. He literally does everything,” Walls said. “No task is too small. It’s not just the administrative side of it. He and I have painted fields. He fixes sprinkler heads. If it needs to be done, he takes care of it.”
Lewis was the athletic director and head football coach at East Columbus High School before becoming South’s head football coach in 2016.
“We worked a little bit together as far as scheduling games,” Lewis said. “I knew of him. I didn’t know him personally. But I had heard nothing but good things about him. These past four years, just getting an opportunity to see him and how he operates the athletic department has been educational for me. And it’s been a good experience.”
Said Wainwright: “There are a lot of coaches that try to help Coach Roehner do a lot of things because, again, he is always there to help us.”
“I’ve told him,” Anderson said, “he would get more rest if he just put in a bed or cot here, because by the time he travels home and gets in bed, it’s time for him to get up and come back. It’s just unbelievable the amount of time and service that he has put in.”
When others help him, Roehner is appreciative.
“Our administration here has always been supportive,” Roehner said. “The faculty has always been supportive. I never even considered leaving South in the last 23 years. I’ve enjoyed my stay here and I never even considered going someplace else.”
Roehner, who has 38 years total in education, was mum about when he would retire.
“We try to make sure he sticks around,” Wainwright said. “We try to make his job easier. I think we sometimes fail.”
The future of Cougar athletics
South Brunswick without Chris Roehner?
“I don’t think one person would ever step in and take the place of Coach Roehner,” Wainwright said. “It certainly would take a team to really hold it down when he does leave this place. He’s just been such a big part of what’s going on here.”
The inevitability of Roehner retiring saddens Walls.
“I get a little emotional thinking about it,” Walls said. “He’s not just an athletic director, he’s such a great teacher — and a great friend.”
Walls’ voice trembled as he continued to speak.
“He’s meant a lot to me over the years and he’s taught me so much,” Walls said, “not just about athletics but about being a good leader and about being a good educator and just being a good person. I’ve been very fortunate to spend the last 16 years with him.
“When he does decide to retire, it’s going to be weird coming to school every day and not seeing him, because he’s one of the first people here and he’s always the last to leave. So, when he does decide to retire, it will be a well-deserved break. That next school year is going to be completely different because, in my opinion, he’s an institution here at South. We’ll never have someone like that again because I don’t think they make educators and athletic directors like that anymore.”
“We really hope Chris Roehner never retires,” Wainwright said. “He certainly is the hub of the wheel.”