As Orange Park High track coach Rob Garcia went through the thankless chore of creating detours around some of the potholes on his track, he was easily distracted by the intoxicating mix of smoldering oak and pork at the far end of the stadium.
Wayne Watkins and longtime best friend Jim Cannon were working their magic, smoking a mountain of pork butts and chicken to feed hundreds of fans and athletes attending the Don Hall Invitational Track Meet on April 8.
And like the 70 other events Watkins and Cannon attend this year, all the profits were turned over to the local charity.
For Garcia, the contribution of time, effort, money and love will allow him to continue to applying patches to the rickety surface.
“It would cost $85,000 to completely overhaul this track,” Garcia said. “We don’t have that. But we made $11,500 last year so we can keep patching the holes.”
The Don Hall Track is the only rubberized track in Clay County. While that surface is supposed to be replaced every 10 years, Garcia said the current track was last overhauled more than 20 years ago.
When 18 teams arrived last week for the annual track meet to honor Hall, the school’s longtime track coach who died shortly after last year’s event, they found huge sections of shiny patches. The inside lane was in such disarray Garcia was forced to block it off with orange traffic cones.
The track has been repaired with 150 gallons of rubbery filler in the past three years, Garcia said.
But as long as the community, especially Watkins and Cannon, continue to rally around the needs of the school, Garcia doesn’t mind the extra work.
“The program itself is good,” he said. “We have great students. It’s in a great area. It’s a pride thing — no matter how much patching we have to do.”
Watkins, the general manager at Coggin Buick GMC of Orange Park, has a long reputation for giving back. Coggin generally donates the meat; Watkins and Cannon provide the sweat equity to charitable events throughout the community.
The Don Hall Invitational, however, is personal.
“I had five children go to school [at Orange Park]. We started this here in 2010. This cost $300 to do and they’ll turn it into $2,400,” Watkins said. “It’s great to be part of this.”
Cannon’s son, Andrew, is an assistant football coach for the Raiders.
Hall was a legendary fixture at Orange Park, volunteering as the track coach for 42 years. He was 90 when he died last May.
“This turned out to be one of the biggest, maybe the best, Don Halls [meet] since we started calling it Don Hall,” Garcia said. “We had a tremendous turnout. We stayed on schedule. Everything ran smoothly.
“Also, there was a lot of talk about coach Hall. A lot of his friends came out. It was neat to see some of the athletes he’s helped out over the years show up, too.”
Craig Hall, one of Don Hall’s three sons, was overwhelmed by the turnout.
“It was amazing to see how they poured themselves into this,” the son said. “It was touching to see how many people wanted to honor my father. From an early age, he was coaching me. That was his passion, track. It was never a job to him.”
Cannon fired up the first smoker at 9 p.m. Thursday — more than 14 hours before the first barbecue dinner was served. The two friends then spent the next 21 hours working in a cloud of sweet oak smoke.
Teachers and the cafeteria staff were allowed to order pork or chicken dinners hours before the track meet. Every ticket for the faculty and staff was sold in advance, with many extra meals for dinner.
Since Watkins and Cannon started with a dozen 9-pound pork butts and 100 chickens, there was plenty left for the track meet. The pork was shredded for heaping sandwiches, and the chickens were quartered for dinners. Potato salad and Watkins’ personal and sophisticated baked beans also were served. With a drink, the meal cost $6.
“It amazes me all the hours they spent,” Craig Hall said. “As a family, we hope to be even more involved next year.”
Watkins is proud to work with Coggin because it donates $25,000 back to the community each year.
Watkins, who has been with Coggin for 28 years, had four new GMC cars and trucks parked at the front gate, including the first Canyon crew cab with a 2.8-liter Duramax diesel engine delivered to the dealership. There were no salesmen at the meet, only friendly smiles, and hungry bellies, around the concession stand.
“This is not a sales event,” Watkins said. “I just like to meet people. I will meet more people today buying barbecue than will ever walk into the dealership.”
Watkins said he still has traced 357 sales directly to contacts he’s made barbecuing at events benefiting schools, churches and other non-profit organizations.
Watkins and Cannon get in return is the satisfaction of seeing people gobble up their smoky creations. Among them was Clay County High sprinter Jaylan Jenkins, who took a huge bite of a barbecue sandwich. Without saying a word and with sauce on his cheeks, the junior smiled and gave a thumbs-up.
Which was the perfect appreciation for both good food and Don Hall’s lasting memory.
Don Coble is an award-winning sports journalist and St. Augustine-based freelance writer.
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