NEWNAN, Ga. — The end was near at Newnan during the first round of the Class AAAAAA football playoffs.
With a crooked score on the board during the fourth quarter, the long good byes began on the Lovejoy sideline. Seniors who would soon take off the Wildcat uniform for the last time hugged and huddled with other seniors.
Underclassmen soon joined in, thanking the seniors for their leadership. A true expression of love if I’ve ever seen it.
Tears naturally followed and when the game ended — the hand shake line and the team huddle at the 50 yard line complete — it was time to depart the playing field for the last time.
I waited at the edge of the field and watched grown men who had poured everything they had as coaches into their boys embrace each other. I saw the players who had laid everything they had on the field, in practice, going back through the summer heat and weight training that began 10 months ago. Teenagers in the bodies of grown men, walking off arm and arm spent in emotion. I greeted each player as they came off, the hugs, the genuine love and tears expressed verbally as well as non-verbally was overwhelming.
I was asked by Southern Crescent Buzz editor Gabriel Stovall to share my thoughts on the journey this year with the Lovejoy program, and so I began to reflect during the hour drive home from Newnan.
I came on board with the program as a character coach before the 2014 season. To be transparent, I didn’t know what to expect at first. When asked initially, I wasn’t sure what kind of impact a White, middle aged, physically disabled quadriplegic without football on my resume after junior high could possibly have on a successful football program filled with young, strong Black teenagers.
And at first, it took some time like it does anywhere, at any program to build relationships. As at other schools, you could naturally sense — especially at the beginning of the season, from some of the seniors who were settled into their coaches and surroundings — a “Who are you and why are you here?” aura. But I would be amazed at what God would show me – the love He would put in my heart for them and in them for me.
This season started for me during our first character study during Spring practice, continued frequently throughout the summer and then weekly after Thursday walk-throughs during the season and Wednesdays before school during FCA.
We talked extensively about accountability, teamwork, love, unity, effort, belief, facing adversity, perseverance, patience, legacy, maximizing your talents as well as your abilities.
Most importantly, we discussed how football is bigger than life — that everything we talk about, everything the coaches teach them have a real life application. What we learn on the field translates to real life off the field. Every time, every character study, these young men were locked in.
I was once asked by head coach Edgar Carson, who had to leave to attend another meeting, if his players were respectful to me. I told him that was one thing he never had to worry about with this group. They embodied respect that came from the top of the program down.
But what I didn’t anticipate is what I, myself, would learn from these coaches and players. Although expectations are always high at Lovejoy, the task that lay ahead coming into the season was daunting. Last year’s squad graduated 30 players, 19 of 22 starters, many of whom received college scholarships. Half the coaching staff was new and, oh by the way, they faced a grueling schedule including back-to-backs against two Top 10 teams in McEachern and Class AAAAA Mays, as well as two Top 15 teams in Newton and Tucker.
Adversity can make or break you, and yet these players and coaches kept growing, kept fighting, kept coming together despite a 1-4 start to their season. As a character coach, I don’t look for, nor understand game plans, scheme and technique. I look into the eyes to see what’s in someone’s soul, to see what they’re made of, and what I remember most was what happened during a lopsided loss at mighty McEachern.
Down 38-0 in the second half, I saw position coaches and coordinators coaching every play like the game was tied. I never saw quit on that sideline or by the players in the game. I saw a 15-year-old, sophomore QB bounce right back up after having his ribs caved in after releasing the ball on a roll out, driven to the ground five feet in front of me.
I saw that same player risking injury in chasing down a defensive back and tossing him down two yards before the goal line after giving up an interception.
I saw these players gel. I saw seniors became leaders.
I saw coaches come together as a solid unit throughout the year lead by a head coach who stayed positive throughout the early turmoil, admonishing his coaches and players all year to stay the course.
I saw players play through broken bones, sprains and pulls. I saw genuine love spread throughout a program. I was moved at the sight of brotherhood on display during halftime of the Newton game when one senior helped another senior, unable to stand because of a high ankle sprain, remove his jersey after assisting him into the locker room.
I saw a program that could’ve imploded after a 1-4 start come together for a 4-1 region schedule capsulated by a statement win against heavily favored Newton. A game where a senior who bided his team on the bench early in the season, never complaining, never giving up, make the most of his opportunities in leading his team to a final minute TD and a 20-16 victory.
In the end, that’s what I learned, that’s what this group reinforced to me — to continually “stay the course.” To love each other during good times and bad. I learned that God’s love is bigger than generational or racial divides in obliterating barriers to the extent that I look at many of these boys and love them like sons.
I learned there’s a group of players with bright futures beyond the playing field if they stay the course. I learned there’s a solid coaching staff that embodies leadership, character and integrity who care deeply about their players’ futures. The unbreakable bonds of brotherhood these boys established with one another — that’s what will be important to the players five, 10 and 20 years from now.
All of which feeds into what I learned most, and too many have lost sight of — that high school sports is about developing young people for life.
Yes, I’m ultra competitive and want my teams to win. I want to see the hard work of my players and my coaches rewarded with wins. But may we as a sports community, as parents, as educators and as fans never lose sight of what’s truly important when it comes to high school sports.
Bill Renje is a contributing writer for thecrescentbuzz.com. He is on staff with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes where he serves schools in the South Atlanta Metro area. Follow him on Twitter @BillRenje and follow thecrescentbuzz.com @crescent_buzz.