Danny Book looked across the Charlotte 49ers’ football field Tuesday afternoon and watched his teammates in their first practice of the season with full equipment.
“This was coach (Phil) Ratliff’s favorite day,” Book, a senior offensive lineman, said with a smile. “He enjoyed the first day with all the equipment.”
But the 49ers are practicing under an emotional cloud, following the death Sunday of Ratliff, 44, the team’s popular offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. Ratliff died at a hospital in Hickory, a week after suffering what was described as a “cardiac event.”
Book and other members of the Charlotte team and coaching staff said they are trying to cope with the death by practicing what Ratliff preached.
“His thing was ‘rock solid,’” said Book, a product of Hickory Ridge High in Harrisburg, where Ratliff lived. “Every day at practice, we’re trying to be rock solid. We’re trying to do him proud.”
The assistant coach’s death was a “devastating blow,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert, who is preparing Charlotte for its first season in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. The 49ers will open their season Sept. 4 in Atlanta against Georgia State.
“I told the team (Monday), ‘Today is the first day of the rest of our lives,’” Lambert said shortly before practice . “Our mission is to honor coach Ratliff, honor his family.”
Lambert said Ratliff’s wife Jenni spoke this week to the 49ers’ offensive linemen.
“She’s been a rock through all this,” Lambert said. “We’ve all drawn strength from her.”
Lambert said former Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley, who had assisted the coaching staff since last year, will team with graduate assistant coach Louis Swaba to coach the offensive line this season.
“The players all know coach Donnalley,” Lambert said. “He’s been with them for the past year and a half.”
Junior receiver Austin Duke, an Independence High graduate, said players and staff are “grieving between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., and then celebrating (Ratliff’s) memory from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We will work hard,” Duke said. “He wouldn’t want us to do it any other way.”
The Ratliff family will hold services in Charlotte this weekend.
▪ A viewing will be held at University Hills Baptist Church at 6-9 p.m. Friday
▪ The funeral will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at University Hills Baptist Church
▪ A Celebration of Life will follow at 6 p.m. at UNC Charlotte’s Halton Arena. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. Funeral arrangements are being handled by McEwen Funeral Services.
▪ In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Phil Ratliff Memorial Fund to assist the family. Those donations may be made with checks payable to the UNC Charlotte Athletic Foundation at 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28223 or by calling 704-687-4950.