RIVERDALE, Ga. — Griffin Bears coach Jarrett Laws is the kind of guy who wears his emotions on his sleeves.
This isn’t a journalistic observation, either. He admitted as much Friday while recapping his team’s performance in a season-saving 27-0 win at Riverdale.
And he did it while soaking wet.
The shutout win was Griffin’s (5-4, 3-2) third straight win, and set the Bears up for a little payback next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. against Eastside — a team Laws’ bunch lost 37-12 to in week three of the season — in a Region 4-AAAA play-in game.
It was also the first time a Griffin defense blanked an opponent on the scoreboard since 2013 — when Griffin held five of its opponents scoreless en route to a Class AAAA championship.
Friday’s Rivedale game is probably the only shred of resemblance this team has with that 2013 juggernaut — that, and a soggy coach.
You see, shortly after the win, some of the Bears players grabbed the big, orange Gatorade bucket full of water and doused the second-year Griffin coach with it — a gesture usually reserved for games that come with trophy presentations at the end.
You could tell it caught Laws by surprise. It definitely did so for me.
I’ll admit it. My first reaction to Laws’ gatorade shower that came after a win against a 4-5 Riverdale team, was “Why?”
My next thought was, “I wonder what Griffin fans, so used to competing for region and state titles, thought about such a display.” It seemed a trite way to celebrate, given the Bears’ rich tradition.
Then, after seeing Laws respond to his team with hugs, high fives and warm fuzzies all around, and after hearing him discuss what the gesture meant to him, I came to the realization that, at that point, what the Griffin fans thought of Laws or his team really didn’t matter much.
“The (Gatorade) dump on me was really more like a dump on themselves,” Laws said. “In that, they crawled out of a hole that very few people thought they could get themselves out of. So the culmination of it was less about me, and more about them having a moment to share with me after the grit, resiliency and character they showed.”
Rewind to October 16 at Tara Stadium in Jonesboro.
I was covering Riverdale vs. Jonesboro, and as I paced the sidelines looking for good football photo ops, I bumped into the former Mount Zion and Drew coach.
He had out a notebook and pen and was oscillating between watching the action on the field, and feverishly scribbling notes about what he was seeing.
“I’ve got Riverdale in two weeks,” Laws said to me after we exchanged some pleasantries. “I’ve gotta scout these boys out.”
That’s how I’ve always remembered Laws since my days watching him jump start the Drew Titans football program and athletic department when it was brand spanking new seven years ago.
Laws has always been a consummate professional in the high school coaching game. A ball of energy and intensity. But he’s also a brilliant and meticulous football mind — especially offensively.
Have you had a chance to peep out that Drew offense right now with Quarderman Sloan at running back and Joe Newman under center? The one that, at one point was averaging almost 50 points per game? Laws laid that foundation.
In two years he brought a struggling Mount Zion program back to experience a semblance of the success it enjoyed back in the coach Jackie Green days when the Bulldogs were challenging for state championships.
He’s always been one of my favorite coaches and people in the business, which is why some of the things Laws said to me that Friday night in Jonesboro hurt me, although they did not surprise me.
I remember when Laws took the Griffin job. My former sports editor Derrick Mahone broke the story and I helped him get the word out back when we covered sports at the Clayton News Daily back in 2013. We were genuinely excited for him, but equal parts cautious.
I knew Laws was about to experience a culture shock like no other, going from rebuilding and starting programs in Clayton County which, while having its fair share of football talent, is rarely mistaken as a place with a passionate football fan base, to a place like Griffin — one of the epitomes of passionate high school football fan bases that created pressure cooker environments for coaches.
The Bears fans and Griffin media treat Griffin like many of us would the Atlanta Falcons or Georgia Bulldogs. And while I knew what Laws could do as a coach, I also knew that coaching changes are rarely seamless transitions.
There would be some questionable moments. Some turmoil. Perhaps some games lost that Griffin nation felt should’ve been won. Or even some games that were won that fans believed should’ve been won by more.
How would Laws handle going from being a coach at one of a few football programs in Clayton County to being THEE coach at what many consider to be THEE program in Spalding County?
Laws opened up to me that Friday night in Jonesboro and told a tale of a coach’s frustration. And we’re not talking about the kind that comes from busted plays, missed assignments and poor blocking and tackling.
We’re talking hate mail. Threats. Anonymous phone calls to Laws’ home wishing for the worst for the rest of the season so he could be shown the door to make room for a “real coach.”
Nasty emails and comments on message boards. Fans cussing vehemently at Laws with his young son standing in earshot of the expletives.
One exchange during one of Griffin’s losses this season involved a fan in the stands who could be heard dropping the F-bomb toward Laws regularly. When someone brought it to the fan’s attention that he should, perhaps chill out as Laws’ son was standing there — well, let’s just say the expletives then became inclusive of Laws’ son.
“Sometimes people can be passionate,” Laws said. “And they can become passionate to a point where it becomes somewhat dangerous.”
It represents what I call the unnecessary ugliness of high school athletics and the toxic culture primarily created — unfortunately — by grown, adult men (and, to a lesser extent, women) who seem to forget that these are young, impressionable kids on these fields of athletic competition that they’re setting bad examples for.
I’ve always said that if a bad play, or bad game or even bad coaching in a high school football game is enough to make a grown man or woman cuss, fuss and act ugly toward the athletes or coaches, then it’s probably not the athletes or coaches who have the problem.
So I get it. I get why, after a win over an average football team, the players gave Laws the Gatorade bath usually reserved for reaching your sport’s highest pinnacle. For them, given all the distractions, negativity and frustration needlessly surrounding the program, that win was the highest pinnacle. And Laws said as much to his team.
“Ten years from now, Griffin Bears football will be back on top winning state championships and doing all the things that we’re used to doing,” Laws told his team in the post game huddle. “But when you get that guy bragging about their team going 15-0, you remember to point out that you were the team that re-laid the foundation. You were the ones who protected the “G.”
Laws then talked of payback Saturday. Of settling the score with Eastside. Of the fact that “the playoffs start now” for the Bears. And although some of the Griffin faithful may roll their eyes at the talk of a different definition of success, the Griffin players were nodding and yelping in agreement with their coach, showing signs of emotional buy-in.
So, let’s dispel this myth now: Jarrett Laws gets the Griffin tradition. He understands it and he desires to uphold, if not expand it.
“The expectations are so high in the community in a place such as Griffin, and they should be because of the tradition that’s been established here,” Laws said. “But all situations are different. All teams are not the same. This Griffin team’s measuring stick may not be the same as the 2013 team’s measuring stick.
“But our kids are resilient, and there are some life lessons being learned here that are bigger than football that we’ve talked about. And those things that we’ve talked about showed up on the field (Friday). That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Laws said it’s been “immeasurably hard” to block out some of the vitriol this year. But Laws’ chief focal point has not been football. And while that may be a hard pill for Griffin fans to swallow, it’s been Laws’ saving grace.
“With me, I stay within myself and remember the purpose I was brought to Griffin,” he said. “And that’s to mentor young people, and in the process win football games. When I was hired here, the principal at the time said they had interviewed over 150 candidates who all wanted to coach the state champion football team. He told me I was the only one who talked about building kids and the program. To be 10-0 and not see lives changed, I’d gladly cash that in a minute to make sure that, although we’re having some struggles on the field, I’m seeing kids grow and become better people.”
That night at Jonesboro, the Cardinals scored a touchdown to salt away the win against Riverdale. Laws had seen enough. We slapped hands and hugged, and he told me to throw up a couple of prayers for him.
“I need them,” he said. “I really do.”
Friday at Southern Crescent Stadium as he was air drying on a cool, crisp fall night, Laws came over to me after the voice recorders were off. The smile was back on his face. The glimmer of football success back in his eye.
He shook my hand and said, “Prayers make a difference.”
So do solid football coaches who care more about winning off the field than they do on the field — and who understand that it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.
I have no doubt that Laws can do yeoman’s work for Griffin football. And given what Griffin football had endured before Laws came, it would be advisable for the fans to pipe down, chill out and let Laws do what he does best — build winners in football and in life.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 or follow thecrescentbuzz @crescent_buzz.