By Sherrie Norris
A snow day for Watauga County Schools on Wednesday, Jan. 31, was a fun day for most students, faculty and staff. However, upon reporting to school on a two-hour delay on Thursday, Feb.1, those same students, faculty and staff were in disbelief at the news awaiting their arrival.
Just hours prior, a beloved teacher and coach suffered a medical emergency from which he did not survive. The county, as a whole, was in deep grief as word began to spread that the life of Michael Neff had come to an unexpected end.
A statement released early on Thursday morning by Watauga County Schools helped put the loss into perspective: “We are deeply saddened to share the news of the passing of beloved Hardin Park P.E. teacher and district coach Michael Neff. School staff and personnel have been notified and support will be available today to students and staff at Hardin Park and Watauga High School. Please keep the Neff family, Hardin Park, Watauga High School and our entire school community in your thoughts and prayers.”
The social media message was acknowledged and shared by hundreds by the end of the day, with many contributing their own thoughts and memories — and all with similar sentiments: Neff was a man who made an impact, he loved well and was loved by all who knew him, he treated everyone equally; he was a mentor, a motivator, an advocate for kids, and as one parent shared, he wanted everyone to be a winner, whether in the classroom, on the track, on the field or in life, in general. He knew hundreds of students, their family members and even their pets by name — and he never met a stranger. He was compassionate, he was fair, he was as much a cheerleader as he was a coach.
From his days as a student at Watauga High, Appalachian State University and beyond — to his student teaching days at Bethel Elementary to his role at Hardin Park School at the time of his death, “Neff,” as to which he was fondly referred, made a difference, engaging on a professional, as well as a personal, level, with everyone in his corner. He was fully involved in life and in the community.
In particular, since the inception of Hunter’s Heroes, a nonprofit organization started after the death of another hometown hero, Neff played a big part, along with his wife, in keeping alive the memory of fallen officer, William Mast, Jr., and in celebrating the lives of others through annual fundraising efforts. For that reason, and because Neff has now been added to that list of heroes, a scholarship bearing his name has been established.
The following statement was issued by Hunter’s Heroes on Thursday:
“Today has been such a sad day for so many in our community once again. Today we lost one of our own, Coach Michael Neff. Coach Neff’s wife Emily, started Hunter’s Heroes back in 2013 and Michael was a big part of it. Our hearts and love go out to Michael’s family and to all the students and athletes he coached. He truly loved all his athletes and kids at Hardin Park Elementary. This scholarship fund will go to any middle school or high school athletes that need financial help for equipment, fees, or anything else that they need help with . Michael loved coaching and we will honor him by continuing to love and care for his kids and athletes that loved him so. If you would like to donate, please go to our website, www.huntersheroes2013.com” (See more information below.)
Hampton Funeral Home posted the obituary for Michael Neff on Wednesday afternoon. It reads as follows:
Michael Allen Neff, age 32 of Zionville passed away unexpectedly Thursday, February 1, 2024. He was born July 26, 1991, in Hollywood Florida.
He is survived by, his wife, Emily Greer Neff of Zionville; mother, Meg Andrews and husband Johnny of Blowing Rock, sister, Katie Lieth and Ahren of Raleigh; brother, Dave Andrews of West Jefferson; sister, Kayleigh Andrews and partner Drew Russell of West Jefferson; brother, Mark Andrews of Raleigh; aunt, Angie Vazquez of Weston, Florida; sister-in-law, Amanda Cottrell and husband Matthew of Boone; Father-in-law and mother-in-law, Charles and Nancy Greer of Vilas; nieces, Amelia, Maggie, Norah, Laiken and Marianne and nephews, Johnny and Finley. He was preceded in death by his father, Ralph Vazquez. And his maternal grandmother, Margaret “Gram” Allen.
Funeral services will be conducted 3:30 p.m. Sunday February 4, 2024, at Alliance Bible Fellowship. Reverend Burl Greene, Reverend Gordon Noble and Reverend Reggie Hunt will officiate. A private family Interment will be held at Adams Cemetery.
The family will receive friends from 1:30 until 3:30, prior to the service.
Donations can be made to Hunters Heroes: Coach Michael Neff Scholarship Fund for Athletes at LifeStore Bank or on the Hunters Heroes website at https://www.huntersheroes2013.com/
Online condolences may be sent to the family at www.hamptonfuneralnc.com
Hampton Funeral and Cremation Service is in charge of the arrangements.