MOULTRIE, Ga. – Chris Merritt hoped to be a head football coach by the time he was 30.
An illness scuttled those plans.
But he did become the athletic director at the program close by his hometown that has helped keep him in touch with the sport he loves. And he did it at age 29.
Merritt’s high school playing career at Colquitt County High never got off the ground when he suffered a pair of epileptic seizures.
And then, after he was named the offensive coordinator at Thomasville High several years ago, a seizure suffered while driving his car in January 2017 led to a wreck he was fortunate to walk away from and ultimately ended his coaching career.
A week after the wreck, he suffered another seizure and was hospitalized for a week. It was then that a doctor advised him that the stress of coaching could lead to more.
“I never thought that (coaching) was stress,” said Merritt, whose coaching career actually started while he was a senior at Colquitt County High. “And I just love the game. It was scary at first.
“And a big part of the loss was not being part of a team. It was hard giving up coaching.”
But that April, at age 29, he was offered the job as athletic director at Thomasville.
And he will return to Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium in that capacity when the Bulldogs take on his alma mater at 8 tonight.
“It’s amazing how the Good Lord has blessed me,” Merritt said this week.
Merritt has been blessed with a good bit of tenacity as well.
When he was a 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore defensive end on the 2003 Colquitt County High football team, he suffered a seizure before the Packers played Newnan in the 2003 state playoffs.
He missed the 2004 season, but built himself up to 215 pounds and rejoined the Packers in 2005 as an offensive lineman.
But he suffered another seizure on the third day of football camp at Marianna, Fla., and he, his family and head coach Tim Cokely agreed it would be best for him to give up playing football.
But Cokely allowed him to remain part of the program and to help assistant Barney Myers coach the offensive line.
And until the January 2017 wreck, he continued to coach while earning several degrees.
When Cokely left Colquitt County and returned to North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Merritt joined him there. He remained at NFC under both Cokely and, later Robert Craft, serving the team’s offensive coordinator.
NFC won two state championships while Merritt was on the staff.
In 2013, he returned to south Georgia, taking the job as offensive coordinator at Cook High School.
After two years with the Hornets, Merritt considered offers from North Forsyth, where Craft had become head coach, and Thomasville, where Zach Grage was taking over the program.
He decided to remain close to home and he coached the offensive line and was the offensive coordinator under Grage before health issues changed his career path.
Merritt also is an assistant principal at Thomasville and he now has his sights on someday becoming a superintendent. He is already working on a doctorate in leadership.
Working on a degree while holding down a day job is nothing new for Merritt.
After graduating from Colquitt County in 2006, he earned an associate’s degree from ABAC and a bachelor’s from Albany State. He also now has advanced degrees from Georgia Southern and Valdosta State.
Merritt said his wife Suzanne, whom he married in July 2017, has been steadfast in helping him juggle being a student while also working as a coach and, lately, an administrator.
“She stood by me through it all,” he said of Suzanne, a nurse. “I’m thankful for her being so patient.”
Merritt also gives kudos to Cokely for helping him start his career.
“I’m very appreciative for the opportunity he gave me,” Merritt said. “I’ll always be indebted to him. He was not afraid to take a chance on me and helped me get my foot in the door. It’s not easy getting into the coaching ranks.”
Merritt likes the idea that the Thomasville coaching staff has a decidedly Colquitt County influence.
In addition to Grage, who was a Packers assistant for several years and a veteran of the 2014 state championship team, also on the current Bulldogs staff are Sherard Reynolds and Phillip Brown.
Reynolds, who is a year older than Merritt, was an outstanding Colquitt County football player who went on to play at Valdosta State, where he was a three-time All-American.
Brown coached with Merritt at Cook High and also was on the Packers staff in 2016.
And Merritt is keenly aware of the ties between Colquitt County and Thomasville, including coaches Jim Hughes, Brent Brock, Neil Roberts, Jimmy Francis, Robin Hines, Tim Kelshaw and Danny Blaylock, all of whom worked at both schools.
Hughes, of course, won two state championships as the head coach of Thomasville and won Colquitt County’s first state championship in 1994.
Merritt said he was especially impressed when Hughes talked to the Thomasville football team before its first home game under Grage.
“He lit it up,” was how Merritt described Hughes’s message to the Bulldogs. “Our kids need to know who Dr. Jim Hughes is.
“He has gone beyond the call to support the program. He wants us to be successful.”
It might be difficult for the Bulldogs to compete with the Packers tonight.
Colquitt is coming off a 14-1 record that included a 50-3 win over Thomasville last year.
While the Packers defeated North Gwinnett 17-6 in the Corky Kell Classic two weeks ago before heading into an off-week, the Bulldogs have fallen to Cairo 45-21 and Thomas County Central 31-17.
Merritt makes no excuses for his Class AA Bulldogs opening the season with three local rivals, all of whom play in higher classifications.
“It’s rough,” he said of the 0-2 start. “But we won’t shy away from tough competition. Iron sharpens iron. And it helps us to see a different kind of speed.
“Plus a lot of people don’t understand the uniqueness of these rivalries.”
The start against the likes of Cairo, Thomas County Central and Colquitt County also helps Thomasville get ready for a Region 1-AA schedule that includes games against perennial playoff teams Brooks County and Fitzgerald.
And while the Bulldogs are, according to the Georgia High School Football Daily, a 41-point underdog tonight, he is not ruling out an upset.
“It’s another test,” he said. “But it’s been done before.”
In fact, he remembers the Packers traveling down to Veterans Stadium in 2003 and failing to score a touchdown in a 14-2 loss to the Tommy Welch-coached Bulldogs.
Merritt still has strong ties to Colquitt County.
His sister Kasey Merritt Megahee is a nurse at Colquitt Regional Medical Center. She and husband Tanner live in Norman Park, as do a grandmother and an aunt.
And Merritt attends Heritage Church in Colquitt County.
He now has strong allegiances to both Highway 319 communities and their athletic heritages and acknowledges the roles both have played in his life.
“I’ve been blessed to be part of both of these programs,” he said.