BUFORD — On occasion, when the Buford football practice video gets slightly farther from the action, Michael May does a quick double take.
“I think, ‘Is that me or my dad sitting there?” the 28-year-old assistant coach said.
May realizes his mannerisms and his coaching style mimic those of his father Dicky, also a Wolves assistant, and he doesn’t mind the comparisons. He has followed a similar path in coaching as his idol, serving as a defensive coordinator and strength coach, the main two jobs his father held for decades in Gwinnett County at Buford, Brookwood, Dacula and Central Gwinnett.
Those spring and summer sessions, both on the field and in the weight room, have been special for the Mays, who reunited on the Buford coaching staff under new head coach Bryant Appling, a longtime Wolves assistant. Appling was promoted in the offseason, and he quickly recruited both coaches back to Buford — Michael from Cherokee Bluff and Dicky from retirement.
“It means the world to me (to have them back at Buford),” Appling said. “Dicky taught me pretty much everything I know about being a good man, a good coach, being a great X’s and O’s guy and being a great husband and father. The first time I met Dicky, Michael was in eighth grade. So he’s been like a little brother to me the whole time. Having them back is like having my family back. … It was an easy choice (to hire them). The guy that taught me and the guy who I think is going to be the next great one is his son.”
For both father and son, the return to Buford is comfortable. It feels like home.
Dicky, a 1978 Central Gwinnett grad, coached at his alma mater for 13 years before heading to Dacula for eight years and then to Brookwood. In 2005, he was hired as Buford’s defensive coordinator by Jess Simpson, now the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line coach. May led Simpson’s defense and also set the tone in the Wolves’ weight room throughout his tenure.
Tagging along for all those football practices and weight room sessions was young Michael, who grew up to become Buford’s starting quarterback and won two state championships.
“All the way back, I vaguely remember the Central days running around the fieldhouse,” Michael said. “When we went to Dacula, I guess I was 5 or 6, that’s really when I started remembering being in the weight room, running around. To us, it was a big playground. He’s pretty much always been in the weight room or around it in some part. As I got older and getting in the weight room with him, that made it fun.”
Michael played four years of college football at LaGrange, where he majored in biology, and he turned his attention to a career in coaching. He had opportunities as a graduate assistant at the college level, but opted for another route.
He worked on his master’s degree and took on an apprenticeship role at Buford, where he worked closely with Simpson and Appling on the defensive side of the ball.
“When (Michael) first got out (of college), he had a couple of opportunities to be a GA,” Dicky said. “I said ‘If you coach college, (the GA route) is what you need to do. But first of all, you have to decide if you want to coach in college or coach in high school. In college, you’re going to be at a place for one or two years, then move, then be at a place for six weeks, and then move. You’ve just got to be willing to give up that part of it.
“‘But Jess has a spot for you to come back and you aren’t going to learn any more football going off than you are at Buford.’ I’m not saying that in an egotistical way. We’ve got some really, really good guys on staff. I told him, ‘There’s a couple of guys that when they talk, you sit your tail down and you listen to everything they say.’”
That experience led to a full-time assistant coach role with the Wolves, and put the younger May on the fast track in high school coaching.
“(Michael’s) way ahead of the guys that have been around here and the guys that are here now,” Dicky said. “The whole thing is he knows he’s had to work for everything he’s ever gotten. He knows how to work. And he’s got passion for what he’s doing. He loves what he’s doing. That’s all you can ask for as a dad to a son. Find what you truly love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
The Mays’ time together at Buford ended before the 2018 season. Michael was hired to lead the strength program at first-year program Cherokee Bluff, where he coached defensive backs and worked under former Dacula head coach Tommy Jones. His father entered full retirement to help with his own parents.
Dicky’s father, who passed away in December, suffered from dementia, and his mother has Parkinson’s Disease. He moved his parents out of the house they had lived in for 50 years, got his father into memory care and his mother into an assisted living facility. She also endured a broken hip last year, but is doing better.
“Last year was a tough year,” Dicky said.
He largely spent 2018 away from football, though he squeezed in visits to a few games and a few practices at both Buford and Cherokee Bluff. After seeing Dicky at practices, Michael didn’t expect the retirement to be permanent.
“I couldn’t see him staying retired,” Michael said. “We talk every day and he would miss it. Even at Cherokee Bluff, he would come up to practice a couple of times. He would still be around it. I knew he would still be around it in some capacity. I’m just glad he’s doing what he’s doing now because I get to spend every day with him.”
The Mays decided on a return to Buford at around the same time in early April. To coach together again, they both used the same one-word description: “Unreal.”
“I’m trying to help (Michael) out any way that I can,” said Dicky, entering his 36th season in coaching. “When App gave us the opportunity, I wanted to help both of them out. I love this place. I love what it stands for. I love what (longtime) Coach (Dexter) Wood, Jess and what App is teaching now, teaching and preaching. It’s about developing the whole kid, not just be a good football player, be a great person first.
“I’ll be honest — and my wife will tell you the same thing — the success that my son has had throughout life, a lot of it has to do with what he was taught from Buford football, from Jess. Neal (Auer) coached him, and I coached him, too. He’s a better person because he was a part of it. I think he sees a lot of that and he wants to go back and kind of give that part back.”
The dynamic is a little different now, though. Michael is co-defensive coordinator, a boss of sorts to Dicky, Buford’s safeties coach. As similar as they are, they don’t always agree — Appling joked that they bicker like a husband and wife sometimes.
“(Michael) got on to me the other day about something,” a laughing Dicky said. “I think it’s neat, just how much he’s grown. He’s very, very bright, very smart. Plus, he learned under Jess and those guys. He knows how to grind. He knows how to work. And he loves kids, too.”
Michael knows exactly where he learned those lessons — from his father. The two live just 10 minutes apart, so they talked daily and met up for dinner or fishing regularly during their time apart from coaching at Buford.
Being back on the same staff only makes them closer. For Michael, it gives him more opportunities to learn from Dicky.
“The biggest thing he taught me is how to deal with people, how you treat kids, the relationship with kids,” Michael said. “That’s the biggest thing. The ball stuff (he taught me) is so much. But the biggest thing is day to day, how you come to work every single day. You grind even when you don’t feel like doing it and why you’re doing it, the relationships, and working with kids and seeing their growth. That’s the important thing.
“It’s been great, just awesome to coach with him. To me, he’s the best in the business, and I get to call him every day and talk to him every day. Not only is he my dad, but I think he’s one of the best coaches in the state of Georgia. And I get to learn from him and talk to him every single day.”