By Gabriel Stovall
COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Cap Burnett knows exactly what it’s going to feel like, look like and sound like once North Clayton football is officially “back.”
If you were around Twelve Oaks Stadium in Hampton back on November 1, 1997, you’ve got a reference point to what Burnett was talking about.
Then, the first-year North Clayton football coach was a UGA-bound, senior linebacker for the Eagles. He and his North Clayton squad — a program which, in this heyday, also featured fellow Georgia Bulldog and eventual NFL player D.J. Shockley at quarterback — found themselves in a tussle with a tough Cedar Grove squad.
North Clayton fell behind early and needed to mount a furious comeback in the second half in order to pull out the victory which eventually sealed the Eagles’ fate as region champions.
Burnett said he still gets chill bumps when he thinks about the sound of a raucous and full Twelve Oaks Stadium as North Clayton inched back into contention.
“It was electric out there,” Burnett said. “There were people everywhere on both sides of the stadium, and I’ll never forget the way the crowd just showed up and got behind us as we came from behind to win. Back then, that’s how it was. The place was always packed and loud. The community used to really come out and support.
“That’s what we want to bring back to North Clayton. We want to put a product on the field that gets the school community and the surrounding community excited again about our football program.”
It seems like a long time ago since such crowds followed North Clayton football. Not because it was 19 years ago since that tussle with Cedar Grove, but moreso because of North Clayton’s struggles on the gridiron since then.
That 1997 campaign ended in an 11-2 season and quarterfinals playoff berth. But North Clayton’s only found the postseason six times since then with the last playoff trip coming in 2011. The Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since 2009, and the last five seasons have been particularly disappointing.
Under previous coaches Max Wiltz and James Soza, North Clayton has won no more than three games and have posted a combined 10-32 record since 2012.
No wonder why fans haven’t necessarily been lining up to watch the Eagles play lately. But Burnett doesn’t think the recent trend has to be the sign of a new normal.
“When you look at North Clayton, you know that there’s always talent here,” Burnett said. “It’s really never a lack of talent. It’s just what you do with it, and the way you attack and play.”
Burnett has been a popular assistant coach in stops at Jonesboro and Locust Grove, as well as Logoff-Elgin High in South Carolina. Part of that is because of his status as a local star and the football pedigree of his family — his brother, Morgan Burnett, also played at North Clayton and currently plays for the Green Bay Packers of the NFL — but also because of the style of play he wants to implement as a coach.
“I’m going to do what I’ve always believed in as a coach,” he said. “We’re going to play fast, play hard. I like to employ sort of a spread attack offensively. On defense we’ll be in the 4-3 and just look to put all our playmakers out on the field in the right spots.”
But more than just playmakers, Burnett said he’s also looking for leaders. In fact, he believes that his main intangible leaders may also double as his the chief playmakers on his first team.
He brought five of them — YaYa Diaby (DE/TE), Jaiquan Earls (RB/CB), Rayvon Kee (ATH), James Monroe (RB/LB) and Anthony King (WR/FS) — to the Clayton County Football Media Day two weeks ago.
Burnett says that this group of seniors will be counted on, both on and off the field, to set the foundation for his vision to revive North Clayton football. And none of the five seemed to have a problem with shouldering those expectations — especially when they’re already seeing results in the new regime.
“We can tell this can be a different kind of season for us, because we see how guys are already working harder and really buying in to what Coach is giving us,” said Kee.
The importance of buy-in is huge for these seniors, because they know that they’ve only got one more chance in this new system to make an impact.
“We know we have the talent and the ability to win right away,” said Monroe, who, along with Earls, returns to North Clayton as a leading rusher from 2015. “The things that Coach Burnett is giving us are things that can help us win right away.”
And given the teams now in the retooled Region 4-AAAA, where only Woodward Academy seems head and shoulders above the rest, a right-away winning type of season may not be out of the question.
If it happens, it can give Burnett and company a big boost toward returning to that aforementioned place of excitement.
“We’re excited about what we can accomplish this year if we stay focused and physical, and commit to our process,” he said. “We know what it’s going to take to get us back to where we used to be. It’s just about getting after it and making it happen.”