By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

FALKVILLE – A new addition to the landscape in the south Morgan County town is a giant mural on the side of an old building next to U.S. 31.

The mural proudly salutes the founding and history of Falkville. Across the bottom is the simple, but powerful phrase that says “A small town is like a big family.”

Two important members of that big family are Keith and Karen Wilemon. They have brought pride to the community and changed the lives of many young people through their leadership of the Falkville High state championship track and field program.

Falkville’s track and field program owns 10 state championship trophies and 14 state runner-up trophies. Eighteen Falkville track and field athletes have gone on to compete in college.

Keith and Karen Wilemon will be inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.

“This is special for us. It’s special for Falkville and all the athletes who we have had the privilege to coach,” Keith Wilemon said. “Going in together makes it even more special for us.”

The Wilemons came to Falkville High in 1989 from Winfield. Keith, a UNA graduate, was joining the football coaching staff of his college friend Tim Miller, who was starting his second season leading the Blue Devils. The previous spring Miller had started a track and field program to give his football players who didn’t play baseball something to do in the spring.

“The first track meet I ever attended was the first one I coached in,” Keith said.

When Miller left Falkville after the 1997 season, Wilemon became the football head coach and the track head coach.

 “Track had always been my passion,” Keith said. “We started small. My first year here we had five girls and four boys on the team.”

Karen, an Auburn graduate, became the program’s top assistant. She had to learn how to be a track and field coach. She played basketball in high school at Marion County.

“I don’t even remember if we had a track and field team when I was in high school,” Karen said.

The program has come a long way from nine athletes to 10 state championship and 14 state runner-up trophies. Some recruiting in the school halls and the lure of being a part of success at a high level has kept the program strong in numbers. One season there were 65 athletes in the program.

“I didn’t start running track until the spring of my freshman year when Keith approached me in the hall and asked if I would come to practice once freshman baseball season finished,” Aaron Estes, Falkville Class of 2014, said. “He asked me multiple times a week and I finally gave in.

“I loved the energy that he and Karen brought to practice so I decided that the next year I would give up baseball and solely run track.”

Estes is now the associate head athletic trainer at Marshall University.

Kari Watts, a 2019 Falkville graduate, won multiple state championships as a distance runner for the program. She is in her senior season of running for the University of Mobile.

“I remember joining the program after being practically begged by some friends,” Watts said. “It became one of the best decisions of my life. The Wilemons made it an unforgettable experience.”

Watts will graduate with a major in kinesiology this year and plans to be a physical therapist.

Falkville’s first track and field state championship was won by the girls team in 2001.

“I will never forget how awesome winning that first state championship felt,” Keith said. “I never dreamed we would do it nine more times.”

Falkville boys won indoor and outdoor championships in 2007. The boys won outdoor championships again in 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018. The program hit the jackpot in 2019 with both the boys and girls winning state championships.

“After every championship I would tell the kids to take five minutes to enjoy it,” Keith said. “You might not get another chance.”

While the program grew, it included the Wilemons’ sons Jace and Cade. Jace competed in college at Troy. After college he returned to Falkville High, where he is now the head track coach and assistant football coach.

When Keith moved from teacher to assistant principal, he had to give up being track head coach. Karen took over as head coach, but Keith still stayed involved. Eventually the leadership of the program passed to Jace.

Even though Keith and Karen retired in 2017, they still volunteer with the program. Officially the state championships are divided between the three head coaches with Keith having four, Karen two and Jace four.

“It doesn’t really matter who has been the head coach,” Keith said. “What matters are the kids. We want to produce good husbands, good fathers, good wives and good mothers. We want these kids to be assets to the community and do something to make it better.”

Recently Keith and Karen attended a grandson’s T-ball game. Many of their former track and field athletes were there watching their children play.

“It’s always great to see them,” Karen said. “We have kids that still call us or stop by and visit. We keep up with a lot of them on Facebook. It’s like we are a big family.”

A husband-wife coaching tandem is rare. For the Wilemons the family dynamic has been an important part of the program’s success.

“I truly cannot imagine my running career or high school experience without them,” Watts said. “They have become my extended family and still keep up with me until this day. I know I owe so much to them for their guidance, and I am so proud of their accomplishments.”

Estes said he’s learned lessons from the Wilemons that he will use in his athletic career.

“Both Keith and Karen were great coaches because they found a way to individually communicate and get through to each athlete,” Estes said. “They could read a kid and find a way to push them to better themselves in a way that was effective for that kid individually.

“Every kid that has competed for them would tell you they are better people from having been coached by the Wilemons because of their integrity, honesty and the love they show their athletes.”

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