By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Hall of Famer and Tipton County icon Adrian Nathaniel, 57, passed away Aug. 28 from an apparent heart attack outside of his Munford home.
Nathaniel was known as an educator, basketball legend at Munford, community leader, father figure and friend.
The man earned nicknames like “Big Nate” and “Coach Nate” was honored by those who loved him and he impacted Friday with visitations at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church. Then the community came together for the home going of Nathaniel Saturday at Munford High School.
Nathaniel lived a life worth several honors including having his jersey retired. Often Nathaniel could be spotted during a Munford Basketball game standing on the wall underneath his retired number. Faces from Munford High Principal Dr. Courtney Fee to Tipton County Schools Superintendent Dr. William Bibb would pay him a visit for a chat.
Then friends like Mama Tena Alexander or current students would take a moment to chat with the legend.
Nathaniel spent a lot of time with Tipton County students from the classroom to grilling for the Special Olympics.
Humble in nature and willing to assist with his talents in anyway, The Millington Star was able to catch up with Nathaniel back in 2010 reflecting on his basketball career and life.
The No. 52 orange jersey hanging high on the wall of the Munford High School Gymnasium is historical link of secondary education in the town.
Back in the 1970s, Adrian Nathaniel was an All-State power forward for the Munford Tigers. Before the school’s mascot became Cougars in the early 1980s, Munford High School took on the nickname Tigers from the old Ellis High School.
With integration in the early 1970s, the all black Ellis Tigers combined with the Munford High School Blackcats. Taking the Munford and the Tigers, Nathaniel had his new team.
The South Tipton native shined for the Tigers earning him a scholarship to what was known at the time as Lambuth College. After playing professional basketball in Europe, Nathaniel made his way back home to coach, teach and work in administration.
To the Lambuth University Hall of Fame member, having his second honor by his high school alma mater is a chance to educate about today’s generation about Munford High School.
Nathaniel held the title of Munford Basketball head coach in the mid 80s and early 90s. The son of Clarence and Lorine Nathaniel won the district Coach of the Year in 1989.
With so many awards and achievements in his basketball playing and coaching career, Nathaniel said having the school he has been a part of for nearly 40 years honor him was humbling.
“Being an introvert person, I kind of keep my feeling inside,” he said. “But that night, I was very thankful that the people in Munford would think that much of me. The guys I played with wanted to retire my jersey. Anyone who has played team sports, knows that’s the ultimate honor you can give someone – saying no one can ever wear that number again.”
It was one Sunday at his place of worship St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, Nathaniel listened to Minister Keith McGee list his resume’ where he had another humbling experience.
“Then something hit me right then at church,” he recalled. “It’s sad, the reason I started playing basketball was because I didn’t want to work in the garden at home. The Lord kind of uses you in different ways from that. From that humble beginning from not doing want do chores in the afternoon, it took to me being an All-State player at Munford High School to becoming a NAIA All-American at Lambuth College.
“I got to travel the world and all over the United States,” he continued. “A guy from South Tipton county going over to France, Germany and Luxembourg representing no only myself but my family and the people of South Tipton county. I even represented the state of Tennessee and the United States of America, I didn’t take that for granted. I took a lot of pride in that.”
Nathaniel’s journey almost took him to the NBA. But near the end of a stellar senior season at Lambuth and a few games away from a possible run at the NAIA National title, tragedy struck in February 1981.
“I remember lying in the hospital after I tore my knee up, those words that (my mother) said,” Nathaniel recalled. “That was getting an education at Lambuth. They can’t take that way from me. Yes, sports are there and sports are good. But you have to listen to those around you who care for you as more than an athlete. An education has carried me a lot further than my playing days.”
While racking up points and more than 2,000 rebounds at Lambuth, Nathaniel said his late mother would always make sure he was focused on his primary goal.
“It’s something my mother told me from day one, even when I was getting the big head while playing in high school,” he said. “She told me, ‘Always hit your books.’ When I went to Lambuth and I had relative success and everyone was patting me on my back asking me how many points I scored or how many rebounds, when I called back home, the first question my mother asked was, ‘How are your grades?'”
Getting his grades allowed him to come back to the community he grew up in give back.
“I think God used me in a different way,” he said. “When I hurt my knee, I had a serious conversation with Him. ‘Why? I did everything right. I don’t use drugs. I’m working out. Why did I have to tear my knee up at the highlight of my career?’
“Now that I’m looking back on it as a 51-year-old gentlemen, maybe I went through that so I could become an inspiration for somebody else and some of the kids,” Nathaniel continued. “Maybe they can see if I’m telling you to go to class and hit your book, maybe I could have had it all sportswise if I didn’t get hurt. But by going school and getting your work, your school will be there.”
With his jersey retirement, Nathaniel will be a part of the school forever. Now the principal at the Teen Learning Center/Court School in Covington, Nathaniel said he wants the banner hanging on the wall to teach history and inspire.
“I hope when young people come in here and see it, they think, ‘I can strive and do the same thing,'” he concluded. “He might not have been the best or had the talent that some others had, but he had the drive to play hard. I hope they think he was a pretty good guy and a pretty good ball player. And I will be satisfied with that.”