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It’s hard to imagine a team starting its season under tougher circumstances than that of Jefferson High School’s softball team – with the loss of a head coach.

Robert Bristow passed away at the age of 46 due to COVID complications on Tuesday, just two days before the Lady Bulldogs took the field for their first game.

“Honestly it was tough but I think it kind of gave the girls something to fight for, probably gave them a much-needed distraction,” said Falon Jones assistant softball coach who stepped in to fill Bristow’s role. “I debated on even playing this weekend but they’ve got to keep pushing and try to make him proud. A few of them did some good things and they would say like, ‘Coach Bristow would be proud of me.’ So I think it’s motivational to play not just for their school and themselves but for him and his memory.”

“He’s a guy who never met a stranger,” Jefferson athletic director and head football coach Antwain Jimmerson said of Bristow. “He talked to everybody. It’s going to sting us for a long time. When you talk to people about him, you say, ‘Man, that’s a good dude.’ He really touched a lot of people here because he did that, he talked to everybody and he went to everything. Even though he was coaching volleyball during football season, he didn’t miss a football game. He was always there and he’d be on the sidelines. We’re talking about a really great man. I know I’m definitely going to miss him. I already miss him. He touched a lot of lives. If there was an opportunity for him to talk to you, he was going to do it. He always had time to talk to you. He’s a guy who never had a bad day. Even if he was dealing with something, you didn’t know about it because he’s going to talk to you about your day. He’s a great man. I love him. I will always love him. His spirit is going to live on and we’re all going to miss him. Words just can’t express what he meant to me personally.”

“He was definitely a family-first man,” said Brandon Allee who worked with Bristow on the coaching staffs for different sports. “He had a big personality, always came in with a smile, always greeted everybody with, ‘Hey how are you doing?’ He was a very personable person. He was really easy to get to know. He always put everybody first ahead of himself. He was a great guy to work with, an excellent guy to know, a Christian man, church going and all that.”

“He was a great guy, one of the most dependable and dedicated individuals I’ve ever been around,” Jefferson girls athletic director Mark Allen said. “He loved the kids and loved athletics. He’s the kind of guy you want to have on your staff. That’s a major blow for us. That’s not even to mention the most important thing, the major blow his family is having to go through, leaving behind a young daughter who just graduated last year and a son who’s in third grade who idolized him. He traveled to the ballgames with us. He was under his dad’s wing all the time. That’s going to be the biggest adjustment for his family. That’s something you never get over.”

Jimmerson said the Jefferson coaches will make it a priority to be there for Bristow’s wife, Ashley, their daughter Maggie, a freshman at University of Texas and their son Mason, an elementary student at Jefferson.

“I lost my dad in ’08 and coach Allen lost his dad in ’11,” Jimmerson said. “I find myself, personally, I gravitate toward older men to try to fill that void of losing my dad. So it’s like, how do we do that going forward with his kids? How do we find a way to make sure we’re there, not crowding them too much but also letting them know if they want to talk, we’re here? It’s not, ‘You have to talk,’ but ‘If you’ve got something to say, I’m here for you.’ I think that’s more important than anything else – not really so much about what you say but what you can say if something needs to be said. That’s the deal with his kids going forward – how we’re able to fill that void for them.”

“This is really hard for me,” Jones said. “It’s just not fair. In my mind, he was coming back. It might have been at the end of the season. It might have been next year but I just never thought that this would be a situation that we would be in. His family, I’m just hurting so much for them. I coached his daughter Maddie and I was his son’s PE coach in elementary. I was close to the whole family.”

“He had been showing signs of getting better so it really kind of happened all of the sudden,” Allee said. “He was still battling it but it just took a turn for the worst. The team is handling the best you can and trying to move forward, keeping him in their thoughts while they play. Of course he had a major impact on them while he was here with that program.”

“A couple weeks ago, there was a real rough patch where we kind of prepared ourselves that he might not make it but here in the last week, he had been improving and finally woke up and was giving hand signals and head nods, so we all got in that mindset that he’s going to beat this, so I think him passing was more of a shock than anything,” Jones said. “Even though we knew it as a possibility, we didn’t prepare ourselves for it.”

“He played a big role for us in basketball,” Allen said. “He missed about half the basketball season after Christmas. We mentioned him every day. We think we have issues and tough times to deal with but when you start facing stuff like that, it makes everything we’re doing, outside of fighting life and death, just a small thing.”

Bristow was more than just a coach to many of his players.

“He was definitely a father figure for some of them that didn’t’ have that father role,” Jones said. “He really stepped in. Either last year or the year before, he even took in one of the girls who got kicked out of where she was living and took her in under his roof. He and his family made the decision to be there for her and take on that parent role as long as they could. That’s a really selfless act to just be that good of a person to take on somebody else’s kid as your responsibility.

“He loved sport,” Jones added. “If you got into a conversation with him, he was talking about sports. If it wasn’t our team, he was talking about the University of Texas. This weekend our girls wore orange ribbons in their hair for him and the coaches wore orange ribbons on our shirts to represent him. We came to the field in our “Team Bristow” shirts that we got made to support him. Obviously we’re wearing them under a different circumstance for him to be close to us and for us to represent what he was working toward at Jefferson.”

Visitation will be held today from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. at Haggard Funeral Home in Jefferson. Funeral services will be Monday, March 1 at 10 a.m. at Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview.

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