BRIDGEWATER — There was a lot of noise around the hiring of Chris Fraser in 2017.
The veteran football coach came into a tough spot, replacing a veteran Turner Ashby football coaching staff that had been together on the sidelines for 14 years, and faced a stiff rebuild immediately under difficult circumstances.
But as folks in Bridgewater reflected this past week on the legacy of Fraser, who died unexpectedly last weekend at the age of 59 at his home in Mount Sidney, it became clear that he was the right fit for the Knights.
“Coach was a good man,” said TA athletic director Donnie Coleman, who also coached against Fraser at East Rockingham. “When you are a head football coach, a lot of people are going to disagree with your actions. But I think, at the end of the day, he always did what was best for the kids. Coach had a lot of stops in his career, but I honestly think Turner Ashby was his favorite stop.”
Prior to coming to Bridgewater in March of 2017, Fraser had been the coach at Maury in Norfolk for six seasons where he went 22-42. Before that, he went 5-25 at Charlottesville from 2008-10.
He graduated from Lake Braddock in Fairfax County and served as an assistant there, as well as W.T. Woodson and Courtland, before becoming Jamestown’s first football coach in 1997. Four years later, he began a six-year tenure at Smithland, where he went 27-36 with a significant turnaround in the last three seasons there. A similar trend followed him during his time at Turner Ashby.
“Coach was always the first guy in and the last guy out,” Knights offensive coordinator Andrew Armstrong said. “He always made sure everyone was on the same page and was always inclusive.”
In Fraser’s first two seasons at TA, the Knights won just four games total and frustration began to grow around the fanbase around whether he was the right fit or not. In his third season, however, TA went 6-5 with a close loss to Liberty Christian Academy in the Region 3C quarterfinals.
During the team’s shortened 2021 spring season under COVID-19 guidelines, the Knights went 5-1 but were left out of the condensed four-team regional tournament after a loss to Rockbridge County in the regular-season finale. This past fall, Turner Ashby went 6-4 in the regular season and won its first Valley District title since 2001. The Knights fell to Broadway in the regional quarterfinals.
“What I will always remember is that Chris had a player-first mentality as a coach,” TA defensive coordinator Greg Watson said. “He allowed his players to be themselves at all times. They were never put in a box or told they had to act a certain way. They were all allowed to be who they were. They also knew the door to the coaches office was always open. If there was an issue on the team or if they were upset with how we handled something, the players were allowed to use their voice.”
That, perhaps, is what Fraser will be remembered for most in the halls of Turner Ashby High School.
For better or for worse, by his own words at times, he stayed loyal to his players and gave them opportunity after opportunity to regain his trust. At times, it worked. In other instances, it didn’t.
Regardless of how it fared, the players and coaches inside the TA program appreciated it about him.
“Coach Fraser led by challenging us everyday and pushing us to always be at our best,” former Knights standout running back Grant Swinehart, who is now playing at Virginia Military Institute, said. “He showed us that every player had a vital role in our team and that made us even closer as a family. He showed us that football is more than just a game and can help take you far in life. No matter what, we knew he had our backs through thick and thin, so we played for him.”
Swinehart, Jessie Knight and C.J. Haskins all graduated in 2020, but were part of the 2019 team that started the turnaround for Fraser’s tenure in Bridgewater. All three players said that, even through a pair of two-win campaigns as sophomores and juniors, Fraser built their confidence.
“Coach Fraser believed in us every week no matter our opponents,” said Knight, who is now a heavyweight wrestler at the University of Virginia. “Even during sophomore and junior year, when we only won two games, he continued to believe in us and ensured that we would succeed week in and week out. He was always calm and humble in his approach to the game. He always spoke about his belief in our team and believed that we could overcome all the obstacles we encountered.”
The unique ability that Fraser had to both motivate players before a big-time gridiron showdown while also being able to comfort them after a difficult loss was something players took note of.
The veteran coach often stopped players in the halls to ask how their personal lives were going, Haskins said. Off-the-field conversations inside Fraser’s office were a regularly-scheduled event.
“Coach Fraser was definitely a player’s coach and just a great man,” Haskins said. “Whether it was future endeavors or current life struggles, his first priority was always to help those around him. His personality would just automatically put someone in a more positive mood and would make that day so much easier. He was the type of guy who put everyone’s needs ahead of his own and was willing to go above and beyond to make someone’s life a little better. He was just a great man who will be dearly missed by all who were lucky enough to experience the joy he spread.”
Also part of that 2019 team for the Knights was a fiery group of sophomores that brought a lot of promise on the field, but brought a stark contrast in personalities from previous classes off of it.
After coaching for over 30 years at the high school level, Fraser often admitted it was a challenge.
“I think Fraser was your typical head football coach but when the class of 2022 came in, I think he realized he was going to have to change a little with that crazy class,” Turner Ashby standout senior linebacker and receiver Dylan Eppard said. “The bond that we had with him played a huge role in our success. It allowed us to be able to be a little more laid back in practice and be ourselves, which I think benefited us. We were comfortable around him and the other coaches.”
Much like the players before them, current Knights said they knew Fraser always had their back.
“He stood up for his players like a true family,” Turner Ashby senior running back Sam Shickel said. “He had everyone’s back, no matter who it was or what they did for the team. The strong relationship he had probably helped hold everyone more accountable. You knew when Fraser was being serious because his whole mood would be different. In some ways, it probably made his job a bit more difficult being so close to us guys, but I think he knew that and understood it was all love.”
Jalin Quintanilla, another senior running back for the Knights, said there was a lot that he could say about Fraser off the field. The two built a special bond, cracking jokes and having life discussions.
It’s a big reason, Quintanilla said, the football program has had so much success in recent seasons.
“He didn’t try to change how we were,” Quintanilla said. “He just let us be ourselves.”
Even for the coaching staff, Fraser served as a father-like figure and mentor for his young assistants.
“The coaches [office’s] door was always open,” Armstrong said. “No matter what, the players always knew that he would talk to them. I have never heard a single player say a bad thing about Fraser as a person. He made it a point to always ask how their home life was and how their parents were. He was always present in knowing how they were doing as a person and not just a player.”
During his time coaching at Smithfield, Fraser was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. In April of 2019, fresh off his second season at TA, he told the Daily News-Record he was looking for an active kidney donor after his function levels had reached a critical level of below 20%. This past year, Fraser finally found a match and underwent a transplant months before the season.
That fight never slowed down Fraser throughout his time coaching, though, as players often came to visit him after his transplant, he spent time texting and calling with his assistants to stay on top of things and even tried to continue living his normal day-to-day life throughout the struggles.
When Watson first moved with his wife into the Turner Ashby school district, Fraser the first person at his house volunteering to help. That gesture came just months after a kidney transplant this year.
“He didn’t do it expecting any money,” said Watson, who took over as the Knights defensive coordinator at just 23 years old. “He did it because he wanted to help. I’ll always remember him ending it with, ‘Well, while I’m here, use me. What else do you need help with?’ That’s who he was.”
Prior to coming to TA as the athletic director this season, Coleman spent 11 seasons as the football coach at East Rockingham. During that time, he said he talked with Fraser a lot over the phone.
During the shortened 2020 season, the Eagles had trouble finding opponents when the Bull Run District opted not to play them. That’s when Fraser stepped in and said he’d play them twice.
“I will never forget that gesture,” Coleman said. “He did what was best for kids in general.”
The impact Fraser had on folks around the Turner Ashby program goes beyond the field.
For young men like Swinehart, Knight and Haskins, it helped shape them into who they are today.
“No matter if you had Coach Fraser as a teacher or as a coach, he always did his best to help others first,” Swinehart said. “He prioritized your success over all else and did everything in his power to provide guidance in your life. His positive and upbeat spirit always rubbed off on everyone he was around. I am truly blessed and beyond grateful to have had Coach Fraser as part of my life personally for the past few years and would not be in the position that I am in without him.”
Current seniors, such as Eppard, Shickel and Quintanilla, are now facing a similar reality.
As they get set for their next step after graduation, their appreciation for Fraser has only grown.
“You could always count on him to be there for you,” Eppard said. “He was the guy to call.”
When Fraser started at Turner Ashby, there was skepticism around how much of a fit he was.
Five years later, with a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten, it’s clear he was the right one.
“Coach Fraser has taught me a lot about worrying about things you can control and let the other stuff slide off your back,” Armstrong said. “The idea that having people loyal to you is the most important thing, that you can build a family on your own in your community if you treat people right, always be fair and always willing to change for the betterment of a program. I will miss him.”