By Gabriel Stovall
ATLANTA, Ga. — The tears streaming down Jordan Griffin’s face may have seemed a bit much than what the setting required.
The Jonesboro football team just lost 28-20 to Langston Hughes in the Friday semifinals of the Annual Cam Newton 7-on-7 Passing League tournament held at Westlake High.
It was the first of what will be many such 7-on-7 workouts the Cardinals will participate in during the summer as they prepare for a redemption tour type of season in 2015.
But at the time of the tournament, summer workouts hadn’t even officially began yet. Other than the opportunity to shine in front of college recruits and the Carolina Panthers’ star quarterback, there seemed to be little to play for.
Key word: “seemed.”
For Jonesboro offensive coordinator Nate Wardlaw, Griffin’s emotional outpour was a welcome sight for a team looking for more than a 4-6 2014 campaign that ended with the team’s second loss in a play-in game to Locust Grove in as many years.
“After that game against Hughes, Griffin was crying like we had just lost the state championship,” Wardlaw said. “He was literally crying because he was wondering what else he could’ve done to help our team win the game. We had to and get him.”
Even Cam Newton himself was tugged by Griffin’s tears, and made it a point to personally reach out to console the rising senior cornerback and Kentucky commitment.
“He came to me and told me that I’m a tremendous athlete, and I have to continue to stay strong and lead my teammates in situations like those,” Griffin said. “I’m really a big sore loser, and I always feel like if we lose a close game, there’s something else I could’ve done to make a difference or change in the game. He just told me he was a sore loser like I am and he didn’t like to lose, but to not let one 7-on-7 game bring you down.”
It might’ve actually accomplished the opposite.
Wardlaw said the biggest takeaway from Jonesboro’s time at last week’s two-day tournament was not he squad’s record or even the teams they beat. Rather, the competitiveness and confidence mixture on display from those who will be counted on to lead this year.
“Down the stretch, guys like M.J. (Walker), who’s not the biggest talker on the team, but even him, he was talking up those guys and trying to keep them focused,” Wardlaw said. “And of course Zerrick (Cooper) was there the whole time trying to keep those guys up. It just showed me how much those guys are ready to compete and take their game to another level this year.”
To say that last year was a letdown for Jonesboro would be an understatement. With the budding 4-star quarterback Cooper and a cast of promising skill players surrounding him, the Cardinals intended to make a run for the Region 4-AAAA title, along with a deep playoff stint.
It didn’t happen, thanks to a season-ending injury to Cooper, a Clemson commitment, suffered during last year’s summer workouts, and the aforementioned loss to Locust Grove. And Griffin acknowledged that the best thing that could’ve happened for this version of Jonesboro football could’ve been those two gut wrenching, end-of-the-year defeats.
At Westlake, Jonesboro already showed signs of renewed resilience, bouncing back from a 1-5 start in pool play to push eventual tournament champion Hughes to the limit in the semifinal matchup. But Griffin said he’s peeped such signs long before last week.
“Honestly, our transformation didn’t start this summer,” Griffin said. “I started seeing it happen right after the season. Losing to Locust Grove for a second straight year really did a lot to us, and we realized we had something we had to do. The upcoming seniors knew we had a role that we needed to uphold. We want to be great. So we had a big meeting right after the season, sharing what we needed to do, and we just took off with it after that.”
Since then, Wardlaw said the team’s participation — from winter conditioning to spring ball — has increased tremendously. And Griffin said senior leadership is emerging in ways that weren’t particularly seen last year.
“In looking at last year, what we saw was we missed that leadership,” Griffin said. “Our senior class wasn’t leading the best, maybe. But we still loved those guys and supported them tremendously. It just put juniors in position to step up to the plate and do big things in leadership role. Some were ready and some weren’t.
“But coming up, I always had a lot of mentors who were the leaders of the team. I’ve always wanted to be the X-factor leading my team. The guy you had to look to in big time situations. Not just making big plays, but outside of football helping and supporting to. I feel this is my time to do that.”
Griffin, along with Walker and Cooper picked up individual accolades even as they tried to spur on the team. The Jonesboro trio was selected to join the Cam Newton All-Star team. Two others — North Clayton standouts CB Kindle Vildor and WR Jamarcus Sanders also were selected.
But even in that, Griffin says he only sees is the other guys who wear the Jonesboro name across their chests.
“I’m not too big with the big names and titles and big things like that individually,” he said. “I’m really all about the team. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a huge accomplishment, and it’s a great feeling. But I just want to see my teammates win and do good for our future.”