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Middle school coach, player share Shriners bond

Unicoi County Middle School golfer Norah Ray has benefited from the care of The Shriners Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina. She later learned that her coach, Gene Renfro, is one of many Shriners helping to support Shriners hospitals. (Contributed photo)

By Trey Williams

Gene Renfro has been helping improve handicaps even when he isn’t coaching golf.

The Unicoi County High School and Middle School golf coach has been a Shriner since 2012, and becoming hip to that fact was especially cool for seventh-grade golfer Norah Ray.

Late in 2018, Ray began suffering from slipped capital femoral epiphysis.

“Basically my hip was coming apart from my femur in my leg,” Ray said.

After some six weeks of pain, she went to the doctor.

“We just thought it was a pulled muscle or I had hit it wrong, because I was playing softball at that time,” she said. “We just thought they were going to tell us to put some ice on it or something like that, and they said, ‘Here’s your crutches. You need surgery as soon as possible.’ We were surprised.”

Ray was soon bound for The Shriners Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina. Her surgery was successful, she returned home the following day and took up golf the following year.

And shortly into her first season, her mother Kim figured out her golf coach was a Shriner.

“One afternoon after practice her mom had seen my license plate and asked me about it,” Renfro said. “We just kind of got to talking about it.”

Renfro followed in the footsteps of his father Gene, who began with the Shriners in 2007. Renfro said his father transported children with no other means to Shriners hospitals in Greenville, Lexington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati.

“He made at least 25 trips between Greenville, Lexington and Cincinnati taking kids,” said Renfro, who added that his father and mother (Helen) were compelled to help children. “They always said they felt blessed to have a healthy kid with me and wanted to help kids out who have an issue. Dad was a Shriner and my grandfather became one after that.”

Learning that one of his golfers had benefitted from The Shriners made it even more meaningful.

“It’s just a great honor to see how Shriners has helped her,” Renfro said, “and to have been part of the organization for years. We’ve seen positives come out of the Shriners Hospital, but now to actually coach somebody who has been there and has been helped – it’s just a wonderful experience to see it all come together. There’s a sense of pride in what they do.”

Ray was already rather fond of Renfro.

“He takes his time explaining things,” Ray said. “I’ve never played before. So I was clueless. But he took his time and he just makes it so much easier.”

Of course, learning that Renfro dons a fez only raised his stock in Ray’s eyes.

“It’s such a good place, and anybody associated with it should be raised to that higher level,” Ray said. “I didn’t know for like the first month and a half, and then mom told me and I didn’t believe her. And then I thought it was cool because he’d been to where I was. I thought it was neat because he knew about it and he was so involved with it.”

Unicoi only had three matches before the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ray shot a team-best 51 in one of those matches.

“She’s got a lot of potential and a great attitude,” Renfro said. “She’s always wanting to learn. She wanted a copy of the rulebook just to read it. She wants to study it. She’s a student of whatever she does.

“She’s really outgoing, very driven. She wants to succeed at whatever she’s doing, very determined.”

Ray’s 51 is only two shots off the best score ever recorded for the new program. Teammates Marlee Cornett and Lilly Hopson have carded a 49 and 50, respectively.

“Norah is part of a group, if they can stay together, we can make some noise on the small-school level (in high school),” Renfro said. “We played three times at the Elks, and each time she’d gotten better. It was a pleasure to coach her this year. If this group can stay together through high school, I think the sky is the limit for them when it comes to golf – and in life.”

Ray has been to The Shriners Hospital in Greenville a total of six times including follow-ups, the latest of which was in January. The condition is most common in boys and girls ranging in ages from 10 to 14. There’s a chance the other hip can turn out the same, and it’s being monitored.

“Basically my hip was coming apart from my femur in my leg,” Ray said. “So it was kind of turning out and if they didn’t fix it I would’ve had to have hip replacement within the next year if I had let it go without fixing it. … A friend of my mom and dad’s (Bart) recommended The Shriners. They said it was a great place to be and they’d take the best care of me. And everybody knows The Shriners is a good place.”

Renfro has helped with fundraising, including selling The Shriners newspaper, taken donations to the hospital in Greenville and transported a Shriner back to the Tri-Cities from Greenville.

He’s certain he’ll always be a Shriner.

“Oh yea, with the good that they do – just to see the great outcomes,” he said. “Norah’s one of many kids whose life is better just because of The Shriners Hospital. You see kids at the hospital and they don’t know anything’s wrong with them and they’re just as happy as they can be because The Shriners make them feel that way. They do everything they can there to make them feel at ease no matter what’s going on.”

Ray said Renfro, loving parents and supportive teammates have helped her tee off on her passion for golf.

“I love golf,” Ray said. “The first time – the first few days I was like, ‘I don’t know about this’ because I was just completely lost. But after a little bit I started to get a little better at it as I understood the game more and I was like, ‘This is so fun.’ I think I could play it forever. …

“Thanks to the Shriners for helping me be able to play, because if not for them I probably wouldn’t be able to.”