MORE THAN JUST A FOOTBALL GAME
For the last 517 Tuesdays I have chronicled the events of the past which have shaped our lives and guided us through the uncertainty of the future. Today, just for once, I ask leave to explain what the game of football means to the community of Dublin and what some of our senior players have meant to me personally. Football is more than a game. It is molded around many of the basic essentials of a successful life. Among these are teamwork, finishing a job, achieving a goal, perseverance, honor, dedication, contributing, problem solving and admittedly, having a great time. A friend of mine, Pete Tyre, was a member of two of Dublin's state championship teams. He was at every practice and every game but never played a down. When asked about the impact that football had on his life, Pete said that "football and Boy Scouts got me through the horrors of Vietnam."
This Saturday afternoon, in the first day time and the first Saturday game in Shamrock Bowl history, some of Dublin's finest young men will strap on the "green and the gold"for the last time in the first state championship game ever to be played in Dublin. The first three state championship games, all victories, were played on neutral sites. The last three, all losses, were played on the opponent's field. There is a saying that everything bad or good happens in threes. So we've lost three in a row. Now is the time to begin another trio of state championships.
My connection to this year's team comes through my son Scotty. Through baseball, Boy Scouts and the band I have come to know, and yes admire, many of the seniors of this year's team. Over the last ten years, I have watched these young boys mature into young men. They are a part of me. They will always be a part of me.
I first met Chris Williams on the ball field at Little Hilburn Park. He was a little
chubby and not very fast on his feet. But immediately Chris showed one of his most endearing and enduring qualities. It seemed like he always had a smile permanently cemented on his round face. Well mannered and always well behaved, Chris was and still is a compliment to his parents Luther and Valencia Williams, who were there at every ball game and every Cub Scout outing. Chris got stronger and faster and could knock a baseball as hard as anyone. Chris is one of those kids you might not think of as being a member of the band. He played saxophone in the band until he settled solely on football as his number one extra curricular activity. This once teddy bear like kid will now knock your head off if you aren't wearing a green and gold uniform.
I also met Tyler Josey on the ball field. At the age of eight, Tyler, with his "Boog
Powell" physique and a buzz cut towered over the rest of the kids in the league. I think I actually ordered him an XL jersey. Tyler played first base and could catch nearly every ball thrown his way. He never managed to get under the ball to lift it out of the park. But, I'll guarantee you if there was no fence and no Big Hilburn park next door, his line drives would have rolled into C.W. Anderson's side yard on Hodges Street. I'll never forget the sight of Tyler rambling around the bases, his freckled face smiling and his parents cheering him on. When I saw him four years later in the halls of Dublin Middle School, Tyler was as tall as I am. I knew right there and then that this kid was going to be a very good football player some day.
There is a trio of seniors who never seem to draw the attention of the sportswriters. I never coached only one of these young men, but my teams did play against two of them on many occasions. Thomas Cox was always as fast as greased lightning. As a pitcher, Thomas had one of the best and most wicked breaking balls you've ever seen in a young kid. On the soccer field, where his true talents shine, Thomas is always one of the first to get down the field, with or without the ball. Just watch him on the kick off teams, he is usually the first one down and always manages to perform his assignment. He's also a pretty fair defensive back in his own right and somehow despite the rigors of football and soccer, he manages to be one of the top students in his class.
Then there's Josh Tarpley. "J.T.," the consummate team player, has persevered and this year took over the job of being the team's short snapper. Considering the fact that in the Dome the Irish set the state all time season scoring record, "J.T." just may have snapped more extra points in a season than anyone in Georgia high school history. Izell Stephens and Miles Allen are also team players. These kind young men with kind hearts l unselfishly play wherever it is necessary to help their team win.
The team's quarterback, Ben Cochran, carries the dogged intelligent athleticism
of his mother and the courage and leadership of his father. As an 8th grader, Ben
pitched a near-perfect game and was snaring nearly every ground ball in the second game of a doubleheader to lead his team to the Middle Georgia Middle School Championship. At last year's graduation ceremony, I observed Ben, dapperly dressed in a tux as a part of his duties as a marshal, take the arm of a special ed graduate who lost her way back to her seat. Ben escorted the young lady back to her seat as if she was the queen of homecoming. I have never been more proud of Ben than I was that night.
No one and I mean no one, plays with more determination than Jesse Coxwell. I have seen Jesse time and time again, dive, push, throw, stretch, play while hurting and hustle with the best of them. Hampered by a nagging injury this season, Jesse is a smart sentinel in the defensive backfield. Making less mistakes than his father has hairs on the top of his head, Jessie is more than aptly ready at a moment's notice to take over the duties of quarterback if necessary.
If you don't believe in angels in the outfield, then you don't know Drew Griggs.
At the point of death two springs ago and buttressed with an army of empathetic supporters, Drew battled back to excel both on the diamond and on the gridiron. Check him out as the long snapper. After he snaps the ball, he is almost always the first Irish defender to reach and tackle or hinder the receiver. Drew has stepped up and taken his place in the long line of place kickers in Dublin football history. Will Griffith is a combination of Larry Csonka and Dick Butkus. It's too bad that the good Lord didn't see fit to bless him with an enormous frame to accommodate his bullish style of play. Pound for pound, no one runs harder and hits harder than "Willie G."
Brian Wilcher, another former sax player in the band, might be considered the best athlete on the team. I once watched him lead a seven-man baseball team into a close contest with the best nine-man team in the league. Had he stayed with baseball, he would have certainly been a star in that sport as well. If you do the math and Coach Holmes let Brian carry the ball twenty five to thirty times a game as many team's number one tail backs do, Brian would easily be approaching 3000 rushing yards by now. I used to watch Thomas Barnes as he would come into elementary school. There was something about his demeanor that stood out from many of the other kids. Now sporting a goatee and the bronze face of a Roman warrior, this quiet man came almost out of nowhere three years ago to become one the most important driving forces in this team's successes on both defense and offense in the last three seasons. His leadership and aggressive style of play was a leading factor in the Irish basketball team's state championship this past spring.
I think I met Michael Hall one time. I hope to meet him on more occasions. This young man, with blazing speed, brute strength and a brilliant mind, spends many moments of his precious spare time after practice to tutor those kids who can't seem to keep up with the arduous standards of school work. Michael has helped to organize a S.W.A.T. team and enlisted other seniors to help others in their studies. I really don't know Tony Smith, though I hear Billy Beacham calling his name over the loudspeaker a lot. I do know he loves to come by the concession stand after the game and ask for a piece of left over pizza. Tony, if we have any pizza left Saturday night, you can have a whole one.
I don't know Brandon Edmond or Jamon Morris. I do know it's difficult to tell them apart as their single digit numbered uniforms are hard to differentiate as the fly down the field. I would like to get to know Brandon Taylor and Tim Wells. I hear great things about them as players and persons as well. As for Nick Davis, Sammie Daniel, Grant Hingst, Derelle Lewis and Kenyardo O'Neal, I wish I knew you better as well. I do admire your dedication to the team.
The boys in the band are pumped too. It's their last football game as well. Scotty will eat his turkey sandwich for lunch instead of supper as he has for the last three seasons. It didn't work against Cook last year and he had to eat a standard Bryan's sub before the dome loss to Buford. He will join Paul and Heath in driving the fight song rhythms. Sris and Tim will sing melodies on their saxes. Jeremy, Matt, Joey and Josh will be blasting their horns rooting their classmates on. Meanwhile Kentaro, on tuba, will keep the bass line pumping. Nelson Carswell, IV, the unofficial leader in the student section and the team's 12th man, will be painted in green and waving the Irish battle flag. Nelson's indomitable spirit and unbridled enthusiasm has become a special and integral part of Dublin Irish football.
Here's my prediction for the game this Saturday afternoon. Dublin will play with the same intensity, determination, heart and discipline they have displayed in the past three seasons. Many people associate luck with being Irish. This year's incomparable team has relied on meticulous and exhausting preparation rather than an enchanted pot of gold. Nevertheless, bring all your good luck charms. Our angels will be there too. They sit up in the trees in the north end zone in the bowl's best seats. Look carefully. You may see a few of them rattling limbs and whistling after every Irish first down.
I do know this. When I turn off the light in the concession stand for the last time, there will be tears in my eyes and the eyes of many others. For no matter what the final scoreboard reads, ours will be tears of joy and our Irish eyes, well as always, they will be smiling, and you'll hear the angels singing "Go Irish!"
I was right in my prediction of the outcome of last Saturday's state championship game at the Shamrock Bowl. The Dublin Irish played with the same intensity, determination, heart and discipline they have displayed in the past three seasons. All season long the players and the coaches kept their eyes on a single solitary goal. They did not set out to score more points in a single season than any other team in the history of Georgia, colleges and professional included. They did not desire to score more points in the playoffs than any other team in Georgia history. Nor did they make it their goal to score more points and win by the largest margin in the history of high school football play in the Georgia Dome. Their ultimate goal was to finish what they had started and win a state championship. In the cooling darkness of a warm mid December evening they did just that.
Most people can't understand the concept which the Georgia High School Association has adopted concerning ties after the end of regulation play of championship football games. It is a rule which has been in effect for at least forty-nine years. It first happened in 1958 when Avondale and Thomasville were named co-champions. It happened again in 1969, 1978, 1991 and as recently as 2004 when Hawkinsville and Clinch County, two great teams, battled to a draw at the end of the fourth quarter. Last Saturday, it happened twice. Roswell and Peachtree Ridge were named co-champions of Class 5A following a tie in their championship game. Regardless of the reasoning behind the rule, a rule is a rule. It is just as much a part of the game as having two feet in bounds or being able to interfere with a receiver on a Hail Mary pass in the end zone and give the offended team the ball back fifteen yards from the original line of scrimmage.
I first arrived at the Shamrock Bowl just after 8:00 on Saturday morning. I had been there with my son and two of my loyal band boosters three hours the night before getting the concession stands ready for the game the next day. As I topped the hill by the fire department, I began to notice the tailgaters were already there. A motor home had been in the Century Club parking lot all night, parked in a strategic location on the slope outside the fence where it's occupants and guests could shed their shoes, climb on top and get an optimal and free view of the spectacle about to unfold. My trusted and loyal fellow band boosters had six hours to get ready for the onslaught of thirsty and hungry fans who were scheduled to come through the gate at 2:00. Did we have enough food? We ordered as much as we could store. When I think about it, every restaurant in Dublin could not accommodate eight thousand people in four hours.
I walked up the hill to see a line forming sometime around 11:00. My friends Ronnie and Renee Green were the first to station themselves within inches of the gate. I noticed everyone was sitting down, enjoying the moments. Someone even brought along a bingo game to pass the time. As we scurried about trying to meet the deadline, the aroma of steaks and burgers on the grill and the rapidly warming sunlight made things more pleasant. It was as if the Super Bowl had come to Dublin. By 12:30, the line continued to grow as if there was a big sale going on inside. Everyone in the line began to stand. By 1:45 the line was so enormous the game manager decided to open the gates fifteen minutes early. I saw hundreds of people running or walking as fast as they could to stake out their usual seats. It seemed like a bomb had gone off out in the parking lot. Only the reserved seat holders knew they had a seat for sure. Within thirty minutes and with one hundred and five minutes before kickoff to go, the home stands and the imported baseball bleachers were crammed to near capacity. One by one and then by the dozens people began to line up at the concession stand. Drinks were sold so rapidly, you might have thought that the stand was in the middle of the Arizona desert. There wasn't enough ice to cool the thousand gallons of drinks.
But at 4:00 the highly anticipated match between Dublin and Charlton County began. As I focused my camera toward the south end zone, I was amazed at the immense congregation on the hill. Never before had so many people come to a football game in Dublin. I was dumbstruck. I couldn't believe what was unfolding before my eyes. I was nervous. We were all nervous. Those nerves subsided once Dublin jumped to an early 10-0 lead. I will admit that I laid down face up on the slope next to the band. It was the near the same place where I used to sneak under the fence forty years ago on Sunday afternoons to play football where my heroes did. In the clear blue late autumn sky I noticed a jet airliner passing above, its occupants and crew oblivious as to what was going on thirty thousand feet below them.
As the second quarter ended, Irish fans were smiling. The band stepped it up and put on one of its best performances of the season. I could have announced the show from the booth but I wanted to be on the field with my kids for one final time. I checked back in the concession stand and we had made it through half time. We did sell out the supply of all the peanuts we could order. Everything was going well and then it happened.
Charlton County, the two-time defending state champions, roared back with a vengeance. The state appointed public address announcer kept on calling out positive plays as the boys from South Georgia moved the ball with relative ease. With a touchdown within their grasp, the Irish defense formed a stone wall and kept the ball out of the end zone when Thomas Barnes intercepted a pass and kept the Irish ahead. Drew Griggs kicked the ball through the middle of the uprights in the south end zone to give the Irish a 13-0 lead. Buried between the "B" and the "L" in that end zone was a shiny penny, found heads up lying next to the curb of the Friendly Gus Store on Claxton Dairy Road just two days before. I buried it there as a good luck piece early Saturday morning while no one was looking. My son Scotty said he hoped that Drew would kick the winning field goal. Well he did.
Dublin couldn't move the ball against the stingy Charlton defense. Once again Charlton came back down the field. Charlton's champions would not relent and scored. Another touchdown brought the score to 13-13. Dwight Dasher, the Indian quarterback, punter and place kicker lined up to put his team in the lead. Brandon Edmond managed to get the tips of his fingers on the ball and the conversion attempt failed. The score was still knotted at 13-13. Maybe the lucky penny worked.
Then the Irish stepped up like the true champions they are. One time-consuming play after another exhausted the score board clock. The drive stalled in the middle of the field. Coach Roger Holmes made a decision. It was his decision, the right decision. He was not conceding defeat, he was playing to win. Let every true Dublin football fan shun the doubters, nay sayers and skeptics. Many of them couldn't coach a team of grown men and beat the Dublin Irish. After all, a major reason why there were some eight thousand people there Saturday afternoon was the countless days of preparation and brilliant planning that Dublin's coaching staff put in to get our team to the championship game.
As the clock ticked down to 0:00, I knew our team had just won the state championship. Many were expecting an overtime session. As I looked around, I saw no cheering, only wide eyes and open mouths in stunned disbelief as the announcer proclaimed both teams as state champions. As parents, classmates and friends swarmed the field, I remained with the band. When director Louis Foster announced the next band song was "Last Night," I made my way down to the field. Just as I promised, I danced the twist on the field after we had won the championship. My partners deserted me and I was forced to dance solo and endure alone the laughs on the faces of those around me.
I then walked to the center of the field trying to congratulate the kids whom I have known and grown to admire over the last ten years. No one was smiling. Tears were streaming down from their eyes. Ben Cochran was sobbing uncontrollably as Johnny Payne attempted to get his thoughts on the game. It seemed as if he had let the team down. He didn't. I saw Tina Cochran crying. She couldn't understand why her son was crying. I tried to comfort her. I hugged her. We hadn't been that close since we slow danced to the long version of the Beatles' Let it Be some thirty eight football seasons ago on the dance floor of the un air-conditioned Shanty. Guy Cochran was holding back his tears as well.
I found nearly everyone I hugged was crying. I kept looking for Chris Williams, but never found him. I only found out later that he injured himself twice during the game and was unable to play at the end of the game. I too began to sob when I hugged Tyler Josey, whom I coached ten years before. He smiled a little as he towered over me. Other mothers were crying. Some daddies were too. But I kept on saying, "It's a win! It's a win! It's a win!" Few remember that the first game ever played in the bowl was a 13-13 tie.
I turned off the light in the concession stand and got in my truck to go to Ruby Tuesday's to celebrate another Irish victory with my fellow band boosters. I took the long way around to avoid the long caravan of vehicles headed south to Folkston. It has been a tradition for the last two years. This time the place was crowded with a mixture of Dublin and Charlton fans. We complimented our guests at the next table on the play of their team and their band. They returned the compliment. They were happy and we were happy.
On Sunday morning I drove out to the Shamrock Bowl just to see the place one more time. Forty years ago I did the same thing on the morning after the game. I expected to see a gang of probationers stuffing trash into bags. The bowl was empty. The only evidence that a game had been played there fourteen hours before was the saturation of the bleachers with peanut hulls, spilled popcorn, empty nacho containers, candy wrappers and partially eaten slices of pizza. As I scanned the concrete for extra copies of over priced generic programs, I observed newspapers, magazines and other items brought in by fans to pass the pre game hours. I picked up shakers and gold megaphones, their shouts long dissipated. I must have picked up two dozen discarded tickets, the once highly desired piece of paper that caused people to stand in line for hours and criticize school officials, who sold all the tickets they could get their hands on. There was an empty drink bottle under nearly every seat. But my eagle eyes never spotted a single cent lying on the ground. Maybe everyone kept their lucky pennies in their pockets. I do have to say that the band sections on both sides of the stadium were literally free of litter.
As an alumni, band booster president and school board member, I am extremely proud of the young men of the Dublin Irish football team. Through the leadership and dedication of a unparalleled coaching staff, these champions finished the job. They achieved their goal. No asterisk, no "yea, but," no vent poster, and no one, and I mean no one, can ever take it away from them. They are champions, true champions.