Photo by Brad Bridges

By Robert Wilson

       Then Northwest Rankin athletic director David Coates asked Chris Gardner about coaching boys soccer for the Cougars to go along with his main job of being the junior high football coach 26 ½ years ago. Gardner – a former kicker-punter at Mississippi State who played one year in the Canadian Football League – said told Coates yes since he played soccer growing up and at Brandon High.

       Said Gardner: “It sort of fell in my lap.”

       Gardner’s first team had a 19-6-1 record and made it to the state semifinals, using motivational, goal setting and self-reflection techniques used by his college football coach, Jackie Sherrill.

       Gardner is still winning. In fact, he hasn’t had a losing season and won his 500th game Tuesday night with a 2-0 victory over Lewisburg on a special night at Northwest Rankin in Flowood.

       Gardner’s family – his wife, Christi, daughter, Gracie, and father, Dave (who came from Florence, Ala., to see the special night) – along with about 25 former players, and many administrators were there, and they gave Gardner a couple of plaques to celebrate the achievement.

       “I’ve had a lot of good players and kids,” said Gardner, 52, who has won four state championships (2000, 2003, 2008 and 2017) and has four state runner-up finishes (2001, 2010, 2019 and 2022) in his career.

       Gardner is at it again this year. The Cougars are rolling and are 14-0. Gardner has never had an undefeated season, the closest was in 2022 when the Cougars won their first 25 games only to lose to Clinton in the state championship game. Gardner led Northwest Rankin to a 25-1 finish and won the state title in 2003.

       He has six returning starters – senior defender Cade Thortis, junior defender Daniel Sherman, senior midfielder Landon Campbell, senior midfielder Braxton Williams, junior defender Jay Hurt, and junior midfielder Kinson Smith – from last year’s team, which finished 17-5 and lost to Gulfport in overtime in the first round of the state playoffs, something that has only happened to Gardner a couple of times in his outstanding career.

       “Coach Gardner has taught me how to be a leader and how to overcome challenges,” Thortis said. “I have always respected him because he always has our backs and is very dedicated to his job.”

       Gardner is one of the best kickers to come out of Mississippi, with career long field goals of 54 yards at Brandon High (still a school record), 49 yards at MSU and 51 yards with the Memphis Mad Dogs in the CFL.

       Gardner’s first teaching job was at Peeples Junior High in South Jackson, then a friend told him about an opening at Northwest Rankin and the rest is history.

       “I played soccer for Ron Baer and played football for Wally Bumpas at Brandon,” said Gardner, who has coached wide receivers and currently is the special teams and kickers coach for Northwest Rankin’s football team. “I played for Rocky Felker and Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State. I had some good times. I’m thankful to be at Northwest Rankin. Jean Massey was the principal and Richard Morrison was the assistant principal when I first started. It’s a great place to work and coach and a good place to live. I could have taken other jobs and moved to other places, but I have it made here.”

       Gardner has loved all his teams, but the 2007-2008 team was special. Soccer player Mick Fullerton passed away in an automobile accident before the season and the team dedicated the season to Fullerton.

       “We started each game with 10 players (soccer has 11 players on the field) in memory of Mick and added another player at the first ball out of bounds,” Gardner said. “We won the state that year too and it was very emotional and satisfying to win it for Mick.”

       Gardner credits having good assistant coaches to help along the way to his success. Chase Douglas, in his sixth year, and Daylin Britt, in his first year, are this year’s assistant coaches. Current Madison Central boys and girls head coach Cecil Hinds was an assistant for seven season and a part of two state championships.

       “Coach Gardner has been such a cornerstone for Northwest soccer for a long time,” Northwest Rankin principal Lewis Bradford said. “He truly loves Northwest through and through. Coach Gardner has meant so much to so many players through the years and it was evident with all the former players that showed up for him to witness his 500th win. He’s had a positive impact on young lives for a long time and that is what we are called to do. I’m thankful for Coach Gardner for his work and commitment he has put forth for Northwest Rankin and this community.”

       “Chris Gardner loves Northwest Rankin,” Northwest Rankin athletic director and head football coach Devin Cooper said. “The love and respect he has gained from the players he coached was evident to me after seeing the guys that returned to watch him get his 500th career win as a Northwest Rankin Cougar. He is a great man of character and has done a great job with NWR soccer.”

       Brandon soccer coach Randy West, who retired this year after 39 years of coaching, probably played Gardner more than anyone. West, who won 588 boys soccer games, played Gardner every season at least once.

       “Chris is so competitive and intense during the games and after the game you get the same conversations and handshake win or lose,” said West, who coached at Pearl from 1984-1988 and at Brandon from 1988-2023. “I’m so proud of him reaching 500 and congrats to him.”

       Notable players during the Gardner era were former MLS midfielder Justin Mapp, current Hartfield boys and girls soccer coach Jake Benton and current Brandon football coach and athletic director Sam Williams.

       “Every player that has gone through NWR under Coach Gardner has been willing to run through a brick wall for him,” said Benton, who was a senior on the special 2008 state championship team. “Not one time have I ever heard a kid say anything negative about him. That’s magic sauce. Yes, He has talented players, but not always the most talented and yet he’s somehow always in the mix at the end of the season. That’s true coaching, getting the players in front of you to achieve their potential. Some of the things I admire about him are he doesn’t play the social media game and look to put himself before the players when he has all the ability to do so. I looked up as a father figure and he knew me in my darkest times and one thing I’m forever grateful for is that he doesn’t view me as the punk high school kid, but always makes me feel like I’m his equal. That’s super rare in the coaching world. Some of my favorite memories come from playing under Coach Gardner. He’s not an emotional guy, but he knows when to say subtle things to kids to get them thinking about their future.”

       “Coach Gardner is one of the best to ever coach in Mississippi,” said Williams, who was a junior on the 2008 state title team and coached with Gardner for four years at Northwest Rankin (2013-2017 and won a state title together in 2017). “He was a big part in making me the coach I am today. His passion for coaching, leadership, and development of kids has always been excellent. Tuesday was a milestone in his career, but the wins are just numbers. Coach Gardner’s impact has been much bigger than wins on all his players across his 26-year career.”

       “Chris was a great leader of young men,” said Mapp, who played for Gardner as a freshman in 1999-2000 (Gardner’s first state title team) before going to IMG Academy in Florida for the rest of his high school before playing MLS pro soccer for 15 seasons. “He was someone everyone wanted to play for. He created a winning culture.”