For half of his 46 years on Earth, Dru Nettles has been a high school coach. So that wasn’t about to change despite life throwing a difficult curveball at him in November when he was fired from his job at Denham Springs High.
What happened since one of the lowest days of a late summer and difficult football season full of low days is what the former Yellow Jacket player and longtime coach is focused on now.
That focus came in clearer last week.
Nettles will join the Zachary football coaching staff next school year as the receivers coach and will also have a hand in special teams.
It’s a back-to-his-roots move for the 46-year-old Nettles, a head coach in either baseball or football in 20 of his 23 years as a prep coach.
And under difficult circumstances, it turned out to be exactly what Nettles was hunting for when his tenure at DSHS ended.
“This gives me a chance to sit back and be involved with kids at a different level than I have been able to for a long time,” Nettles said. “I have always believed that the best head coaches have great staffs, and I’ve been blessed to have had great people around me as assistants through the years. I look forward to doing my part and being an asset in any way I can.
“Throughout this process, I am appreciative to a number of people who engaged me about different opportunities. I felt like the situation at Zachary was the best chance for me to get back in the game around some quality coaches in a quality school system and in a community that definitely has some things moving forward. It gives me chance to continue to grow in this profession as a coach and teacher. There are a lot of different views: Do you just jump back in as a head coach just to have to have the title? To me personally, the title is not the most important thing. I want to help kids grow as young men through sports and there are some ways you can do that a lot more as an assistant.”
Sometimes, the fit between a coach looking for a second chance and a program that has needs to fill is glove-like.
When Zachary coach David Brewerton reached out to Nettles after his dismissal, it was more of a conciliatory gesture mixed with a chance to pick the brain of the man whose team had given the powerful Broncos as much trouble as any opponents the last few years.
The two men have gotten familiar the way coaches do during district meetings and at summer get-togethers. As much as a budding friendship, Brewerton’s connection was through respect for how Nettles carried himself and represented the Yellow Jackets’ program, especially when an unwanted spotlight fell on the team, school and community last August.
“I have always thought of Dru as one of those guys in our profession who does things the right way, and that’s important to us,” Brewerton said. “We want to win championships, but it’s more important that we prepare young men for their futures and we want good men as coaches to help do that. Dru is somebody we can trust our kids with and that’s very big with me in our program.
“The way he handled that terrible situation that all of Livingston Parish went through – but specifically Denham Springs High School – man, my respect level grew for him tremendously. The way he handled things with his kids and the community to try to bring light with what they were dealing with was amazing.”
There is also very much a football element to the connection between Brewerton and Nettles.
In 12 seasons at DSHS, Nettles helped restore the Yellow Jackets to respectability with a 62-64 record, two District 4-5A championships and eight playoff appearances.
The last three games against the Broncos, all DSHS losses, have been settled by a total of 7 points, including a 35-34 overtime heartbreaker last fall. Those three Zachary crews have a pair of Class 5A state semifinal appearances sandwiched around the 2015 state crown.
“A lot of times in the offseason, head coaches bounce ideas off of each other and I have bugged Dru a lot because they always seem to play us very well and I wanted to pick his brain about the things he saw that helped him prepare his team so well for us,” Brewerton said. “The more we talked, the more he put forth what he was looking for in his next step and the more I started to realize how well he would fit with us. We were lucky enough to be the one he decided to go with.”
To be clear, this seems to be just that for Nettles – the next step and not the final step.
With plenty of tread remaining on his coaching life, Nettles makes no bones that he wants to move back into head-coaching at some point, but he doesn’t intend to rush into anything.
Instead, Nettles is eager to see what this next phase of a long coaching career offers.
“I would think definitely in the future I would be a head coach again if the right opportunity at the right place opens up,” Nettles said. “When you do something for a long period of time and it’s something you enjoy doing, there is always going to be that to think about. But I also see this as chance to see things from a different perspective. This gives me a chance to works more closely with the players and I get to leave the decision-making to the head coach.”
There is also another different wrinkle: Nettles will return to a role as a teacher after three years focusing on athletic director administrative duties at DSHS.
Nettles will be a physical education teacher and said that he will likely be involved in a second sport to be determined. Baseball seems like a natural fit for the former Denham and Southeastern Louisiana catcher: From 1997-2001 he was the varsity coach at Woodlawn and guided the Panthers to a state runnerup finish in 1999.
Whether that is part of Nettles’ future path is yet to be determined.
What is already established is that he is emotionally ready to make the transition to his next coaching adventure.
“The transition has been difficult for me, but when I step back I realize that it’s been a difficult year for the whole community of Denham Springs because of the flood and the recovery,” said Nettles, who is still a few weeks away from returning to his home full-time. “It’s been a very emotionally draining time. But you work through it, get your feet on the ground and keep fighting.”
There will be emotions that follow this move as well since Zachary and Denham are district opponents and meet every year.
Compartmentalizing his connection and time at DSHS is something Nettles said is still a work in progress.
“I’ve had tremendous experiences and had fantastic coaches when I played who impacted my life and helped lead me in the direction where I am now,” he said, mentioning Steve Long and Butch Wax in particular. Nettles played for Wax and was a Jackets’ assistant football coach from 1994-97 before moving to Woodlawn, where he took over as the head football coach in 2002. Wax hired him at Denham prior to the 2005 campaign.
“I enjoyed the time and opportunities I was given to go back home to coach. Those chapters have closed now in Denham Springs and I appreciate the opportunity I had and what we accomplished. I wish them well and now I can move forward with the programs I’ll be associated with.”
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
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