Howard is survived by his wife Lisa, a daughter Lindsey and a step-son.
Howard was experiencing chest pains and sweating profusely on the sidelines in the first half, and he told defensive coordinator Chad Martin he was going to get checked out.
An ambulance took Howard to Riverview Regional Medical Center in Gadsden, but emergency workers were unable to revive the Lincoln coach.
Etowah County Deputy Coroner Chris Thacker confirmed to The Daily Home that Howard was pronounced dead by a doctor at Riverview Friday night.
“Before halftime, he walked up to me and said, ‘Coach, they’re yours’. I’m not feeling so well, and I’m gonna get it checked out, so at halftime you just get up and talk to them,’” Martin said. “And I could tell he didn’t look like he was feeling so well.
“I didn’t want to get our kids emotional. At halftime, we didn’t say anything about it. I’m sure they’d noticed he had left, but we didn’t tell them, because I just thought honestly that he would meet us back at the field house.”
The Lincoln sidelines had a peculiar vibe throughout the second half. Players and fans seemed confused by the lack of Howard’s familiar figure. Rumors circulated about Howard’s whereabouts, but it was not until late in the game that his death was confirmed.
Players, fans, cheerleaders and virtually everyone associated with Lincoln were in tears as the final minutes ticked down. Multiple players threw their helmets after hearing their coach would never return to the sidelines.
“We found out at 5:48 (left) in the fourth quarter,” Martin said. “I heard on the headset. As a coach, you try to keep those emotions in check, because the players are watching.
“But I was just completely devastated, because the guy who coached me, the guy I’d coached with this whole time, the guy who has done everything with me ... I can’t do anything for him.”
Martin played under Howard at Lincoln while Howard was an assistant. Martin then followed Howard to Ragland in 2001, Howard’s first stint as a head coach, and back to their alma mater in 2004.
A shaken Martin struggled for words as he described his admiration and love of the man who had given him his first coaching job.
“Coach Howard meant so much to our program,” Martin said. “Everything we have is because of his dedication. He loved, he loved Lincoln. He loved Lincoln football. There’s not a guy who can love a school like he did.
“What he means to Lincoln, it’s unbelievable, the impact he’s had.”
That impact led to a banner season a year ago. The Golden Bears began the season 9-0 and climbed to No. 1 in the Class 4A rankings despite the loss of star running back D.J. Howard to injury.
This year’s team was expected to build on that success, but that is no longer on anyone’s mind.
“It’s a blur, everything is just a blur,” Martin said. “We talked pre-game about how you always have adversity, and you’re measured by how you can handle adversity. But we had no idea ... we were talking about adversity in a ball game, not anything like this.”
Keith Howard’s death sent shockwaves throughout the local high school football community. Upon hearing the news, coaches who had just completed their games were devastated to learn of Howard’s death.
“I’m just like in shock. I’m sick at my stomach,” Oxford coach John Grass said. “He was a great friend of mine. I know his family. I know his brother. I know his wife, and my heart just goes out to them. We prayed for them in our locker room. We prayed for his family and the team and everything. I just can’t believe it.”
Ohatchee coach Chad Cochran also broke the news to his players in the locker room and the team said a prayer.
“The football community lost an unbelievable man tonight,” Cochran said. “He was a tremendous role model for student-athletes, for his players. He was beloved by the coaching community, by Lincoln’s community, by our community. He was just a well-known coach who gave his life to coaching and to kids and loved them. It’s a tremendous loss for the state of Alabama football.”
The day Howard was hired to coach his alma mater, the Golden Bear’s arch rival, Munford, got a new coach, too — also an alumni of his school. That coach, Heath Harmon, now at White Plains, questioned the news he received about his longtime friend and contemporary.
“One of our coaches got a text,” he said, “but it was just so unbelievable, I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t so. This just didn’t happen.’ … I was just stunned.
“The last time I talked to him we just didn’t talk about football. He was telling me about his church and how impressed he was with what they were doing … he was more than just a good coach. He was a good guy and a good Christian guy.”
Steve Savarese, who is the executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, high school football’s governing body, called Howard’s death a great loss.
“Keith gave his life for these kids and because he loved the kids,” Savarese said, “and the kids are better because of it.
“This saddens me so much. I can’t begin to imagine what his family, the team, the community, is going through.”
He had visited his daughter Lindsey in the hospital earlier in the day, and at first Martin believed that the stress of her illness — he said she had a steadily rising fever and had passed out in the doctor’s office — was what was affecting Howard.
“I had talked to him last period (of the school day) and he had told me about Lindsey,” Martin said. “I told him, ‘Coach, you go on, just go on.’ But he was like, ‘No, Coach, she’s alright, the doctor’s there, and I’m just going to drive up separate to the ballgame.’
“Which, that’s Keith. Keith was totally dedicated to this program, to this community, and his wife is dedicated. It’s a family. It’s not a coaching staff, it’s not a football team, it’s a family. And we’re all a part of it, and he was our father.”
Leeds head football coach Keith Etheredge said Howard has always been a super nice guy.
“I’ve always been able to call him and get guidance,” Etheredge said. “I respected him so very much. He was just a class act and ran a great program. He was a great guy and he loved the kids. He would do anything for you.”
Springville head football coach Keith Maple said the last time he saw Howard was in July at a passing camp at Pinson Valley.
“He was real excited about this season because he said his guys had the chance to be real successful,” Maple said. “Before that, I had seen him at Auburn and he noticed how I had lost some weight. He told me then he needed to go to the doctor and lose some weight also. He suffered from gout and diabetes.”
Maple said Howard was a great man, great coach and great father.
“When he was coaching at Ragland, the two of us sat down in the office one day and talked football for five or six hours,” Maple said. “It’s amazing how he was here one minute and gone the next. I hate it for his family and I hate it for the kids that he made such an impression on every day.”
Ragland head football coach Brian Mintz said this is such a terrible tragedy.
“We will keep his family in our prayers,” Mintz said. “Not only his family, but the football team and the entire Lincoln community. He made such an impact on this community here in Ragland. As coaches, we want to affect the young people we come in contact with everyday. Coach Howard did that here and at Lincoln.”
— St. Clair Times associate editor Gary Hanner contributed to this story.