By Mike Christensen
Todd Breland just wants to say thank you. A very sincere, bottom-of-the-heart thank you.
The Laurel High School athletic director and football coach lost almost everything he owns in a recent fire at his home, but he also found something of great value.
He found that he has a lot of friends. He found that in a world that often seems cruel and crazy there are good people who care. He found a new perspective on life.
“This whole thing, other than a death in the family, this has been the biggest tragedy we’ve been through,” said Breland, now living in a motor home. “But the outreach from folks in Jones County and across the state has been unbelievable. I just wanted to say thank you to everybody for everything they’ve done for us.”
For example: The Laurel School District set up an account for donations at a local bank. A GoFundMe page was created on Facebook by TheSMACAttack.com, a website devoted to South Mississippi sports. Hardee’s restaurants in Laurel launched a fundraiser. “(T)his is one way of giving back to the community by showing our support for Todd Breland, who has helped so many kids,” Hardee’s district manager, Myrtle Alexander, told Hattiesburg’s WDAM.
He has gotten untold calls, e-mails and letters.
“I didn’t know I had this many friends,” said Breland, who has been the head football coach at Laurel for four years and won a state championship in 2014.
Breland said that as he stood staring at the charred remnants of his house on the morning of Oct. 12, one of the first people who stopped by was Scott Pierson, the coach at West Jones, one of Laurel’s big rivals.
“I’ve heard from coaches all over the state,” Breland said, “some I know, some I don’t. I’ve heard from booster clubs at other schools. Coaches’ children have been writing me letters. Anything you get from a child, you know it’s heartfelt.
“As coaches, we compete on Friday nights, but it’s a brotherhood. What the other coaches have done exemplifies what the MHSAA is all about. It’s a brotherhood and a fraternity for the coaches.”
Awakened by the wail of smoke detectors, Breland and his family – wife Rebekah, kids Morgan and Maddox — escaped unharmed from the fire, which started in the early morning hours.
“Like a big dummy, I went back in to try to get some things,” Breland said.
He almost got trapped inside and wound up having to jump through a window, landing on his chest on the ground some 6 feet below.
“I’m too old for that,” he said. “The Good Lord was watching over us. There is no doubt in my mind who helped me get out. I almost panicked in there. I was scared for a moment, but then a calmness came over me. I took a leap of faith.”
When he addressed his team on the day of the fire, still without shoes on his feet, Breland said he reminded them of a speech he had given a few weeks earlier, after the Golden Tornadoes had lost a third straight game.
“I told them back then that ‘Life will punch you in the stomach sometimes. You’ve gotta overcome it,’” he said. “And then this happened to my family. … It was a teachable moment for sure.”
Breland said that with the considerable help of his assistant coaches, he has been able to carry on his football duties.
“It was actually good to get back on the field and play some games,” he said. “When you’re competing, you get lost in that.”
He also thanks the school district for giving him time to take care of his personal business. And then there’s the support, moral and financial, that has come from so many.
“It’s been very humbling,” Breland says. “I’ve reached a level of peace I didn’t know I could have.”