Legendary soccer coach Ray Woodard dies

Alabama’s founding father of soccer, Ray Woodard, passed away Thursday at the age of 72, leaving behind a host of survivors and a thriving sport.

Woodard, who brought the game of soccer to Alabama in the 1960s, has had multiple health issues over the years since suffering a stroke in 1997. Last month, he was admitted into intensive care with multiple symptoms and was unable to recover. Hospice care was called in last week.

“Had it only been one, I think he would have been able to recover. He had too many things wrong,” said Woodard’s son, Eric.

Visitation will be1-3 p.m. Saturday at Southern Heritage Funeral Home on Alabama 119. The funeral will be Sunday at 2 p.m. at Christ’s Church United Methodist on Caldwell Mill Road. . In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Indian Springs School Ray Woodard Field, Discovery Ministries, or the Urban Ministry Community Kitchen.

Woodard was one of the top soccer players in the nation in the 1950s, being named an All-American for Brockport State University of New York and helping Brockport win a shared national title with Penn State University in 1955. After teaching at a high school in New York, Indian Springs School offered to double his salary if he’d move to Alabama. He left his science class behind and moved to Alabama as a physical education teacher and coach. Shortly there after, he started a soccer team at Springs, and the sport was born in the state. Over time, Woodard won numerous unsanctioned state championships in soccer, but it was not until 2008 that Springs won a boys’ soccer title sanctioned by the AHSAA.

“Tremendous,” is how Woodard said he felt that day as he watched the Springs boys celebrate at John Hunt Park in Huntsville. Immediately following the win, Springs players ran over and hugged Woodard, who watched in his wheelchair from the sidelines.

“It’s just unbelievable how much he loves those kids,” his wife Mary said.

That post-game image was only a recent display of the respect Woodard held in the soccer community.

“I remember the first time that we beat Ray, that was cool, because he’s the man. And you don’t ever feel like you’ve done anything until you beat the man,” said son-in-law Joe Webb, who is the head coach at Mountain Brook High School.

Woodard’s daughter Christa, Webb’s wife, said Woodard never showed favoritism and always tried to make things fair. After girls were admitted to Springs in 1975, Woodard worked to add a girls’ soccer team, giving him a chance to coach his daughters.

Eric remembers a time when he was playing and Woodard had to referee the game, because the official did not show.

“He purposely didn’t call a foul. I argued and he told me to keep playing,” Eric said. “He understood that our team was better than the other team, but he was going to go ahead and level out the playing field. Everything he did was more for the sportsmanship and the sport and fair play. He always wanted it to be fun for both teams.”

After he retired from Springs in 1997, Woodard kept coaching through youth ball, building relationships with many of the state’s top players.

He coached three Women’s National Team players on Alabama’s 82 Olympic Development Team in 1997.

In 2002, he was named the US Youth Soccer adidas Coach of the Year as coach of the Region III boys’ team.

While Woodard was known for his soccer accomplishments, he also coached basketball, track and volleyball at Springs. In high school, he was known more for his basketball than soccer, according to family.

Eric said Woodard’s love for teaching kids is his legacy. While coaching at Springs, Woodard would not only coach games and hold camps, but would travel to give free clinics to those who could not afford to attend a camp.

Woodard is survived by his wife, Mary, of Pelham; one son, Eric Woodard of Pelham; three daughters, Christa Webb of Shelby County, Michelle Woodard of Pelham and Becky Oddo of Helena; three brothers, Hugh Woodard, Bob Woodard and John Woodard; a sister, Nora Rueby; 23 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren and a host of other relatives and friends.

Indian Springs School has set up a memorial page to Woodard. Click here to view it.