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It was about an hour before the kickoff of Garinger High’s opening football game of the season, and Wildcat assistant coach Christian Price got a surprise.

He was now head coach.

Greg Fowler had resigned as coach at the last minute, and Price had all of 60 minutes to prepare his undermanned Garinger team to face Southwestern 4A Conference favorite Myers Park.

Most coaches would have been overwhelmed.

But most coaches aren’t former platoon sergeants, who oversaw 40 soldiers during tours in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Facing the Myers Park Mustangs isn’t on the same level with defending a position on the north side of Baghdad.

“I guess my perspective is a little different,” says Price, who is the 11th Garinger head football coach in 21 seasons. “Being with a unit that served as forward observers near Baghdad gets you ready for a lot of things.”

Price and his staff of five assistant coaches, all non-staff volunteers, will guide Garinger in a season-ending game at 7 p.m. Friday at Rocky River.

The Wildcats are 0-6 and have been outscored 263-14. Rocky River is 2-4 and the obvious favorite.

But Price thinks his team could have a surprise left this season. And if not, he’s still happy with the way the campaign has played out.

“Let’s face it, numbers are a problem for us,” he says. “We just don’t have a big turnout for the team. We’ve played pretty well early in some games. But when the same kids are playing offense, defense and special teams, they get tired pretty quickly.”

On an afternoon this week, about two dozen players were practicing on the Wildcats’ turf field in east Charlotte. Price says he has lost a couple regulars to injuries. And like countless other schools across the nation, Garinger has been hit by academic ineligibilities – fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning for students.

Still, there’s some progress at Garinger.

“When I took over, I made a list of the players’ grades,” he says. “It was important to see academic progress.”

Being the only faculty member on the football coach staff, Price had to keep track of all the players. He set up an Excel sheet and sent emails to his players’ teachers every day.

“At first, I got messages like, ‘He is having trouble,’ ” Price says. “But after a while, they messaged that the students’ work was improving.”

At the end of the last grading period, Price says, nearly every student-athlete showed academic improvement.

That hasn’t helped on the field, though. Price and his assistants made a series of changes to the offense and defense after losing 49-0 to Myers Park in that season-opener. He said the changes were designed to take advantage of the players’ abilities.

Those moves were sort of a reflection of his own career.

Christian Price didn’t follow a straight line from graduation in 1995 from Sun Valley High School in Union County to Garinger High.

He says he was tired of school, so he joined the National Guard and served active duty. He is still a Guard member. He got an associate degree from CPCC and worked as an auto mechanic for a while. After the 2004 tour in Iraq, Price says he decided to “get serious about life.”

He earned a bachelors degree from Pfeiffer University and then a masters in military history from Norwich University in Vermont.

He became baseball coach at North Hills Christian in Salisbury, then at Rocky River High. From there, he became freshman football coach and assistant baseball coach at Richmond Senior.

“I wanted to see what it was like at the top of the athletic world,” he says of the Richmond Senior stint.

But he was called back to active duty last year and sent to Saudi Arabia.

Price came back home late last year, was hired at Garinger in January as a history teacher, and became coach a month later.

He is preparing for Rocky River during his honeymoon week. He and new wife Chelsea were married last Saturday.

Price has the “interim” coaching title but says he wouldn’t mind getting the job full time.

“I’d like to see what we could do with a full off-season of training,” he says. “I also don’t think there’s much connection between the football program and the faculty. I’d like to improve on that.”

But either way, he says he appreciates the opportunity he got this spring.

“These kids have been great,” he says. “They’ve worked hard. They deserve something good. And there are a lot of Garinger people in this city who would like something good too.”

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

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