BIG SANDY – Tim Russell still smiles.

He has every reason not to. Russell has seen enough tragedy to fill a Shakespearean play. His best friend in high school died in a car accident. His house burned down in 2007. He was diagnosed with colon cancer two years later. He had surgery and beat it only 15-18 days before the cancer would have spread to his bloodstream.

But on June 3, 2016, Russell suffered the biggest loss of his life.

He was celebrating the graduation of his oldest daughter, Bailee. It was a bittersweet day for the family. A new beginning for their daughter, who would study at Harding University in Arkansas in the fall with hopes of becoming a powerlifting coach and English teacher. It would be hard to let go, but they were proud of her for following her dream.

That night, after the celebration subsided and the reality of a new lifestyle was beginning to settle in, the Russells received news. Bailee and friends Haley and Cameron Johnson and Alisha Allen had been hit by a drunk driver. Cameron Johnson and Allen made it out with only injuries.

Haley Johnson and Bailee died.

No one would have blamed Russell if he decided to take some time off from his job as Harmony football coach. Not only did he stay, but he led the Eagles to a 9-3 season, becoming the winningest coach in school history in the process.

His determination that season left players, assistant coaches and the community in awe.

“When you show up to work and you see his attitude and that he still puts others first when he and his family are going through hard times, it inspires you to wanna put others first and to do your best for him,” defensive coordinator Brian Mauk said.

The encore has been even better.

Russell capped 2017 off by leading Harmony to its first undefeated record in school history. The Eagles have dominated opponents for the most part, pitching five shutouts. Barrett Hill, with 1,724 yards, is one of the premier rushers in East Texas.

Amidst the tragedy, Russell remains immensely positive, a character trait that belies the path of his life.

He has plenty of fond memories of Harmony, too, having coached there since 2001 (with a gap from 2004-2009). However, he feels this season has the chance to bring him his best yet.

Bailee Russell (second from left) with her family after her graduation from Harmony in June 2016 (Courtesy of Jana Russell).

***

It is the Monday before Halloween and Russell is directing Harmony’s football practice. The foliage that serves as a background to the grass field is a mixture of green, yellow, brown and red leaves as the air begins to cool.

He is preparing his team for a matchup with Winona that Friday. The focus, at least during the last bit of practice, is defense, and the players must have been listening. Harmony won, 53-0.

Russell is the best kind of teacher. He understands that each player is different. He’ll chide players he knows need it, but take a more gentle approach with younger players.

“He’s not just a coach, he’s a mentor,” senior quarterback Spencer Seahorn said. “He’s pretty much our second dad. He’ll get on your behind, too, if you mess up.”

Most of all, he truly cares. Even when football is over, he is there for his team. He has been asked by former players to officiate weddings and preach at funerals. He is not a preacher, but definitely could be.

Players and coaches refer to him as a “godly” man. He takes pride in his faith. He said he hopes to be the best father and husband he can until he sees Bailee again one day.

“Hopefully help lead some guys closer to Jesus, too and win some games along the way,” he added.

Russell grew up in Jacksonville, where he went to high school. There, he played football and developed his passion for the game. Under the tutelage of Eddie Baca, a position coach at the time, Russell decided he would like to coach one day.

“I learned a lot from him about coaching and how to be a man,” Russell said. “I wanted to emulate how he handled his family. My coaching beginnings and the way I handle myself as a father are how coach Baca handled himself.”

From Jacksonville, Russell went to junior college and then the University of Houston, where he met his wife, Jana. Both were athletes, though Jana once held an NCAA record for most 3-pointers in a game with 10 while Russell struggled for playing time on the Cougar football team.

“She was the All-American athlete and I was just a part of the team,” Russell said.

Their first date was spent exploring the city of Houston after a meal at Hard Rock Café. Russell remembers every detail from going to the San Jacinto Monument to Deer Park. They have been married 26 years.

She has been by his side through it all. From his first coaching job at Galena Park in Houston to Chapel Hill in Tyler to watching him become a head coach at Harmony. From the fire to the cancer to losing their first child.

Russell does his best to remember Bailee. He wears a purple bracelet with her name engraved. Many of the players wear the same bracelets.

In addition to being the coach’s daughter, she was a cheerleader and was close with many members of the team.

“She was a girl that younger girls could look up to,” linebacker Konrad Eichelman said.

Russell has many memories to recall of Bailee, but on this particular day, one sticks out. After the house burned down in 2007, Russell was discussing the details of their temporary living situation with Jana when Bailee poked her head in the door.

“Mom and Dad, I love ya’ll,” she said. “Thank ya’ll for taking care of us.”

She was only in second or third grade at the time, but her words brought comfort to both parents.

Russell thinks she knew the impact of that moment. Caring, a trait she must have inherited, was in her nature.

Russell with his daughter, Bailee, a cheerleader (Courtesy of Jana Russell)

***

Russell credits his father for instilling him with his strong character.

He pushed him to do his best. If Russell committed an error in one of his baseball games, his dad would be waiting to give him a spanking. At the time, he thought it was unfair. But he sees how it molded him into the man he is.

“He expected perfection from me,” Russell said. “I’d bring home my work from school and if there was a 100 on the paper, he would just wad it up and saw, ‘I don’t want to see your hundreds, I just want to see the report card.’ Looking back that was kind of tough, but I got to see his love for me and he just wanted me to be the best I could be. When I didn’t reach my potential, he let me know I had more left in me.”

Russell’s father died six months before Bailee did. It was tough on Russell. In many ways, his father had prepared him for the hardships he would face in life. Russell remembers the talks about loss and how, in times when his family needed him, he must show toughness.

Nothing could prepare him completely for losing Bailee, but Russell utilized many of the lessons his father taught him to help deal with the hardship.

“He helped me understand the importance of being a father to the rest of my family and that my wife needed,” Russell said. “It’s a daily struggle. We all miss her. I know that she is in a better place. I wouldn’t want to take her out of heaven if I could. One day I’ll get to see her again.”

The first season without Bailee was tough. Players said some days it weighed harder on him than others. Russell said there were times when he lost focus.

He gives the credit to his players and assistant coaches for helping him through that season. It’s another character trait of his. Selflessness. Mauk describes him, accurately, as “others-first” countless times.

“He wants the team to be about them,” Mauk said. “Any time they go, ‘Coach, can we do this or that,’ it’s like, ‘This is ya’ll’s season. This is your senior year.’ He keeps others first.”

In that season, Russell had time to evaluate things. He thought about life and the reason he coached. He thought about his relationship with his players. The example he set for them. He saw their efforts to lift him up.

He knew even with as much adversity as life had given him, he had reason to still be grateful.

“As a coach, you speak about family and you talk about family and you want to be close to your players,” he said. “Losing Bailee caused me to truly evaluate how I felt about the guys. I knew I really cared about them, and then when I lost Bailee I knew that I had a true love for the guys. As any father does or any coach does, I’ll make mistakes. But there’s still a love and compassion for the players that is real. More than anything else, that helped me during that season and it helps me have a better appreciation for my guys today.”

Tim Russell with his daughter Bailee at the athletics banquet in Harmony (Courtesy of Jana Russell)

***

On Oct. 28, Russell tweeted a picture of his daughter, Macey.

The caption read, “Daddy-daughter breakfast date at Cracker Barrel. Day already made!”

Since losing Bailee, Russell has taken more time to enjoy the moment. He always considered every day to be of importance, but the tragedy has made him realize how fleeting each moment can be.

Every second with his family is one to cherish.

“I try not to look too far into the future, but just enjoy every day with (Macey)," he said. "I guess, if anything else, it put more emphasis on each day than long-reaching goals. Now, the goal is just to enjoy and make the most out of every single day.”

The Eagles begin the playoffs on Friday, with a matchup against Paul Pewitt at Pirate Stadium in Longview. It is the beginning of their journey to the ultimate goal of state championship.

Russell and Mauk both spoke of a focus in practice that has been unmatched in previous seasons. Both also know the path won’t be easy.

Harmony has never competed in a state championship. If somehow he takes the Eagles all the way, Russell won’t be basking in his own glory.

He’ll be much happier for his players.

“He would be so excited to see the kids be able to experience that kind of success,” Mauk said. “That really does bring him joy. The fact that he can have a part in them having a great year would be more than anything he would experience.”