CALYPSO – If you take a visit to North Duplin’s H.E. Grubbs Field on a Friday night in the Fall, you’ll likely find all of Calypso there cheering on perhaps the one thing that binds this tight-knit community together more than any other – Rebels football.
So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that as the man who has become synonymous with the North Duplin football program faces a challenge more daunting than any he’s encountered on the gridiron, that same Calypso community has given him their unwavering support.
For roughly the past two months, North Duplin head coach Hugh Martin, now in his 18th season, has been tasked with guiding the Rebels to their best season since 2017, while also being a constant presence by his wife Donna’s side as she battles ongoing health issues.
Martin has coached North Duplin to 119 wins, five seasons of eight wins or more, and appearances in the 1-A state championship in 2007 and 2017.
More recently, Donna has been receiving medical treatment at Duke University Hospital.
The eighth-seeded Rebels (8-2) host twenty-fifth-seeded Pamlico County (3-7), at 7 p.m. on Friday, in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1-A state playoffs.
Martin’s players learned of Donna’s health challenges the second week of October, as North Duplin prepared to play Carolina 1-A Conference opponent Union. Always meticulous in his preparation and attention to detail in the week leading up to a game, Martin was adamant that what he and Donna were dealing with personally, would not be a distraction to his players or the coaching staff.
“Coach Martin’s wife has been dealing with some medical issues for maybe the past two months,” said North Duplin assistant coach Brad Rhodes. “As a coaching staff we knew she was dealing with some things, and there was not a lot of clarity or certainty as to what was going on. The kids found out the week we played Union. Coach Martin’s big thing was he wanted our guys to stay focused. He didn’t want anything to distract them, and he didn’t want anything to be about him, which is what makes him such a great leader.”
In the days leading up to the week prior to North Duplin’s game at Carolina 1-A Conference rival Rosewood, Donna’s condition required more of Martin’s attention, leaving his presence at practice that week sporadic at best.
Rebels’ assistant coaches took on added responsibility in practice and in preparing the game plan for Rosewood. Rain in the forecast for Friday of that week pushed the game up to Thursday, leaving both the Rebels and Eagles with one less day to prepare.
Whatever North Duplin lacked in Martin’s absence throughout much of the week in practice, his team more than made up for in his return, as he ultimately made it back in time to coach in the game at Rosewood.
North Duplin went on to force four Rosewood turnovers, including an interception returned for a touchdown, and senior tailback Dujuan Armwood rushed for a career-high 235 yards and four touchdowns, in a 39-32 victory. The win was the Rebels’ first over the Eagles since 2017, and Rosewood’s first loss to a Carolina 1-A Conference opponent since 2020.
“The weekend before the week of the Rosewood game is when things started to adjust with what it looked like in terms of our preparation,” Rhodes said. “Anybody who knows Coach Martin and his staff knows there’s a lot of preparation that goes into each week. Our coaching staff has done a phenomenal job in filling any gaps that were there. With Coach Martin having some other things going on, guys have really stepped up and taken some things off his plate.”
The victory at Rosewood kept North Duplin in the thick of the Carolina 1-A Conference championship hunt as it prepared to host Hobbton on Oct. 28 in the regular season finale.
With a critical tilt against the Wildcats looming that had significant conference title and all-important playoff seeding at stake, Donna’s health made it apparent to Martin that he needed to prioritize his wife over football.
With the showdown against Hobbton looming, the Rebels’ coaching staff and players once again went to work with one collective mindset – honor Coach Martin with your effort. With Martin by Donna’s side, while watching the game online, North Duplin rolled to a 63-35 victory, and clinched a share of its first conference championship since 2017.
“This past week some things transpired and Coach Martin felt like he needed to be with Donna, and we all agreed,” Rhodes said. “Our staff did a great job of preparing and the overall message was the things that would make Coach Martin proud would be that we were well prepared, we knew our assignments, we knew how to line up correctly on defense, and we played with tremendous effort and passion. Those are things that embody who he is as a person and as a coach.”
As the scoreboard hit all zeroes and the Rebels and the Calypso community gathered to celebrate on H.E. Grubbs Field, Rhodes reached for his cell phone to make sure the man who orchestrated it all could soak in the moment.
“It was certainly emotional,” Rhodes said of his FaceTime call with Martin. “He had watched the game on his computer, and he certainly knew what was going on. It was definitely a special moment. He and Miss Donna both mean the world to our community, and our school and certainly our football program. We’re very thankful for them, and we definitely wanted to share that moment with them, and I thought it was a cool way for us to be able to do that.”
On Friday night, North Duplin will embark on its journey into the fragile spectacle that is playoff football.
In the postseason a win can prolong dreams of a magical playoff run for one more week, while a loss can leave a program and a community staring into the harsh finality that often accompanies an unexpected end to a season that by all accounts has resonated with all who proudly call Calypso home.
As the Rebels take the field against Pamlico County, and their passionate and loyal fans fill the bleachers, they won’t have to look any further than their head coach and his beloved wife, for a reminder that in playoff football and life, it’s important to savor the gift that is today, that’s why it’s called the present.
“We talk about it a lot, and you think about the schools in our conference, you’ve got a lot of teams in our league, that are community-based,” Rhodes said. “A lot of these kids were in elementary school in 2017, and they attended the pep rally the day before our state championship game. Some of them, their parents played football here. We always talk about representing our school and our community well. The only thing that changes this time of year, is if you want to stay together you have to win each week. We want to make sure we are well prepared, and then on Friday night we want to make sure we take that preparation to the field and play with great effort. As long as we do that, we can live with the results of the game.”