Alabama assistant coach thankful that his boss, friend found safe at sea

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(WDHN) — An Alabama assistant high school football coach was thankful his boss was found safe at sea Thursday night.

Chris Smelley, the head football coach at Sylacauga High School, went missing after he left Grayton Beach, Fla. at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday for a fishing trip in his black and blue kayak. A search for Smelley began that afternoon after the WCSO and South Walton Fire and Rescue could not contact him.

“As soon as I got offshore, just a little bit, I knew I was in trouble,” Smelley said. “The wind, once right off shore was blowing hard.”

When one of Smelley’s assistant coaches got the news it sent a shockwave through the Sylacauga locker room.

“We were at the baseball field, and I got the phone call,” Sylacauga Linebackers Coach, Stephen Strickland said. “They asked me if I heard the news about Coach Smelley, and it was something. It took me by surprise. So, I walked back to the locker room and some of those football guys were looking at me like ‘Hey, did you get the news too?’. They were all in shock. So, we got together as a team; we got together and said a little prayer for Coach Smelley.”

Stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico for hours, Smelley started to prepare for what could have been even longer in the waters.

“At that point, I threw out my fishing gear again. I caught a fish, and was getting ready to clean it and be prepared to eat it that night if I had to,” Smelley said.

Smelley was spotted safe off the coast at around 6:00 p.m. Thursday by a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk Helicopter. Coast Guard officials say Smelley had no injuries when he was found.

Strickland said Smelley texted members of a “March Madness” group chat to let everyone know he was okay and in good spirits.

Smelley was hired on as Sylacauga’s Head Coach in 2023 after spending the 2022 season as the quarterback’s coach at Hoover High School.

Even though he has been with the community for a short time his disappearance still hit the community hard.

“About 6:30 yesterday, they had a prayer gathering at First Baptist Church in Sylacauga,” Strickland said. “My wife said there were a lot of people in the community there. You could tell that it’s awesome when a community like that rallies around something. It also shows the power of prayer.”

Now, Smelley is back with his family and is trying to enjoy the rest of his vacation.

Smelley says that he is touched by the support.

“Looking at Facebook, and Twitter, and my phone and all the text messages that I’d received,” Smelley said. “Probably one of the neatest was my football team at Sylacauga had gotten together with our team chaplain, and had done a big prayer service.”

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