MOULTRIE – Taylor Barber has accepted his first head coaching job and is already working with the Tift County girls softball team as it prepares for the 2019 season.
Barber also will join the Tift County baseball team’s staff as its pitching coach and returned earlier this week with the Blue Devils from a camp at Berry College in Rome.
Barber, who has been an assistant with the Colquitt County baseball and softball teams since 2016, is obviously gratified to have a chance to take on his first head coaching opportunity.
But the opportunity is even more meaningful considering that just nine months ago, Barber nearly died after suffering a massive heart attack at age 25.
On October 14, Barber was working on the baseball field at Packer Park, when he experienced severe chest pains.
He was suffering a heart attack caused by a dissection in the left anterior descending artery, causing a blood clot in the area known as a “widow-maker.”
Otherwise healthy, with no previous heart problems, he had an 80 percent blockage.
After being rushed to Archbold Medical Center in Thomasville, three stents were placed in his heart.
In a post on his Facebook page several days later, he wrote : “Had the first responders not made the call to send me straight to Thomasville, the chances of me being here today would be slim, if none.”
He spent two days in intensive care and another day-and-a-half in the cardiac unit at Archbold.
Barber went through 16 weeks of rehab and some recalibration of his meds before being cleared to resume his coaching duties and he was back in the Colquitt County dugout for the Packers’ 2019 baseball season.
Looking back earlier this week to the heart attack that nearly took his life, Barber sounds grateful and blessed.
“It puts a lot into perspective,” said Barber, who less than a year earlier had married former Colquitt County, Moss Farms and University of Georgia diver Elizabeth Ann Kirkland.
“It was an eye-opener. Obviously, it was not a lot of fun. It scared me. But I felt like I was in good hands.”
Barber was in otherwise excellent health. Or, as he put it, “I felt like I was 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.
“But the Good Lord was looking after me.”
And it was his boss on the Packers baseball team, head coach Tony Kirkland, who encouraged him not to let the health scare derail his plans.
“He told me, ‘You can’t live your life walking on egg shells,” Barber said.
He does carry a bag with medications and instructions should he have another attack.
But, otherwise, he was full-strength when, just after the end of the Packers baseball season, he received a call from Tift County baseball coach Kyle Kirk offering him the Blue Devils pitching coach job.
And he later got another call, this one from Tift County Athletic Director Rusty Smith offering him the Lady Devils head softball coach job.
It was a difficult decision in some respects.
Kirkland had been his baseball coach the final two years that Barber was a pitcher for the Packers.
While attending Georgia Southern, he decided he wanted to be a baseball coach and went to talk to Kirkland for advice.
His former coach did more than that.
Kirkland gave him a job on his varsity staff. Barber worked with the pitchers alongside Will Stuckey during the 2016 season.
The last three years, Barber has handled the pitchers himself and he has helped develop such fine players as Beau Dalton, Austin Craven, Buck Blalock, Cory Newsome, Dylan Collins, Gavin Patel and Ethan Phillips.
“We really had some young bucks,” Barber says of his early years on the staff. “The kids had great personalities and made the transition easier.”
And the chance to work with Kirkland was a huge benefit.
“He is well-respected by baseball people,” Barber said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better picture on how it’s supposed to be done than working for Tony. He’s been right by my side the whole time. And I know his decisions have always been in the best interest of the kids.
“I’ll forever be grateful to him.”
One of the hardest things for Barber to do when he decided to take the Tift County jobs was to tell Colquitt County softball coach Chance Pitts that he was leaving after being his assistant the last three seasons.
The two have been close friends for many years and Pitts helped teach Barber the ins and outs of softball.
“These two guys showed me the way it’s supposed to done,” Barber said. “And they showed me this business is more than just wins and losses. I’m blessed to call them friends as well as mentors.”
Barber credited Colquitt County Principal Jamie Dixon and Athletic Director Greg Tillery with helping him make a smooth transition to taking the Tift County jobs.
He has some inkling about what kinds of the programs the Tift County baseball and softball teams are.
In baseball, the Packers and Blue Devils squared off 15 times over the four seasons, with the Packers winning 11 times.
In softball, Colquitt County went 7-1 in head-to-head matchups with the Lady Devils, who have gone 6-21, 7-20 and 6-22 the last three seasons.
So far this summer, Barber has done some 4-on-1 work with the Lady Devil players.
“The kids have bought in to what I’m trying to do, the whole nine yards,” he said. “They’ve played us (the Lady Packers) hard the last three years and they are really eager to get over the hump.”
Barber will bring his first Lady Devils team to Moultrie next week to play in the annual Vereen summer tournament.
Joining Barber’s first softball staff is Tony Kirkland’s son Colin Kirkland, who in his first year of coaching was on the Packers baseball staff this spring.
“He’s someone I trust completely,” Barber said of Colin Kirkland, also a former Packer player. “He was one of the first hires I wanted to make.”
Kyle Dean will return as another Tift County assistant softball coach.
The Tift County baseball team won four straight games in the team camp at Berry and Barber said he believes the pitching staff has potential.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who can throw and we are trying to teach them to pitch,” he said. “We’ve got some at a high-talent level and we’ve got some strike-throwers who are competitive.
“And they’ve all been sponges this summer.”
Barber and wife Elizabeth Ann, the Moss Farms Diving assistant coach, will continue to live in Colquitt County.