'We are all panthers': Remembering the trio
It is hard to remember a particular first regular-season volleyball match being played in the Van Alstyne Panther gymnasium.
The new coach LeQuia Collins had just won her first match as a head coach, and three older gentlemen made their way to her in the middle of some congratulatory handshakes to do the same. She asked them who they were related to on the team, and the response was, "none of them, but we are all panthers."
"I hope that you will make it out to another game sometime," Collins said.
The group responded with, "Oh, we will."
Those three gentlemen, Jack Turner, JD Ballard, and John Chapman, would probably be at all of the team's games — home and away.
Collins was shocked.
The men supported all the Panther teams, but they don't just go to football games. They intentionally support the girls' teams. If there were a choice between a boys' or girls' basketball game, they would be at the girls' game.
"They followed the girls because they felt like the girls did not get the hype, support, or recognition that boy sports do. So they did something about it," Rajonia Carnley, daughter of John Chapman said.
She added that her father thought the girls were "tough, aggressive, fighters, and they never give up."
Carnley said the support for the girls' teams especially started when Katy Holley was playing basketball. The men's group then added volleyball to their schedules when Sarah Coleman was playing.
If you were at QuickCheck in the late afternoon of a Tuesday or Friday, you could see them meeting to head out to a game together. Anyone who sat next to the three would soon find out that they were not just there to be encouragers with their presence but also to motivate vocally.
During volleyball season, players had better hit the ball hard, or they would let you know about it with a "Come on, hit the ball!" In a basketball game. They were also known to give a passing referee an earful of what they thought of the recent whistle.
There was a time when what the trio of panther fans did wasn't that uncommon.
I can remember moving to Van Alstyne in the late 1990s when I began my service to First Baptist Church as the Student Pastor — my time at games extended my job to connect with students and their parents. I remember being at football games and seeing people like Billy Ray and Bookie Edwards sitting in their reserved spot at Old Panther stadium; even though there were no reserved seats in those days, they just arrived early. Were they there to see their grandkids play? Not at all; they were there to see another crop of Panthers on the field. I would see them connect with boys on the team come Sunday morning at church and tell them they did a "great job" every week no matter what. It was a picture of community, and it happened in every church in town on a Sunday morning.
I remember Betty and Bob Childress being the same type of Panther fans, and when the Van Alstyne Band made the State Marching Competition for the first time, she called me. Betty asked if I was planning on going to the contest. She said, "I was planning on going because Laura (her daughter) was in the first-ever band in Van Alstyne, and she was going to travel to the Alamodome to see them march for the first time." She told me that she had secured a room before the band even qualified for the State Marching competition because she just knew it was "their year." She was unable to attend the contest as planned and thought I might be going; she gifted the room to me so that I could be there to capture the moment. I have seen the Panthers take the field on multiple occasions at the state championship level, but only one time I moved to tears watching when they entered the stadium; it was this band contest, and it had everything to do with that phone call with Betty. Who even thinks about traveling to a State Marching competition if they do not have any relatives on the field, people who love their community, people like Betty Childress.
I don't have a picture of that first moment when the trio of men congratulated Coach Collins on her first victory. However, I did capture them in that season when the team was advancing to the regional tournament. One of my favorite images of the girl's playoff run that year is where the girls stood in front of their student section. The team asked Chapman, Turner, and Ballard to join them. They knew they had to be included. It was their cheering section with all of their biggest fans, after all.
This past week, we learned that JD Ballard passed away, the last of the trio still living. Mr. Chapman was the first to leave us in February 2020 and Jack Turner in February 2021. In today's world, the dedication to the community exemplified by Turner, Ballard, and Chapman is uncommon.
Rajonia Carnley said of the group, "They loved the way the volleyball coaches and parents & players welcomed them into their fold & and made the old guys feel needed. The volleyball girls were special to them, but they loved the Panthers, girls and boys."
I am not saddened that the farm fields that surround Van Alstyne are being filled with housing developments. However, I am sorry that the newcomers to our town will not have the opportunity to know the "Billy Ray's and Bookie's" that had a way of making this place unique. In those moments, I remind myself and the others who do know their names, it is our time to carry on their legacy in caring for our community.