Cinderella finally turns an even 10
I’m wondering how many of us can remember exactly what we were doing 10 years ago, in the summer of 1997? Chances are that if it was just another summer, you might not recollect anything remarkable without some research.
I’d been on a seven-year sabbatical from the Newton County Schools, teaching and coaching in Monticello from 1990-1993, and then in Rockdale County from 19941997. But the growth which was beginning to impact the county had necessitated the construction of a new middle school, and it was my good fortune to be selected as the person entrusted to start the football program there, at Indian Creek Middle School.
And so it was that in the summer of 1997, I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the construction site on the Covington Bypass and Ludie’s Sports Shop on Elm Street, where Richie and Scott Childers took care of our uniform and equipment needs and the design they put together was fantastic.
My old 1985 Dodge Ram D50 pickup was starting to show its age, so I took some tape and spray paint, and painted “Indian Creek Panthers” right down the side of it. A picture of me in that truck appeared in these sports pages, along with some grandiose comments I made about the Panthers being the new kid in town. I’m sure that the picture made great bulletin board material for rival coaches during that inaugural season.
Construction at ICMS was running a little behind, and there was concern as to whether the building would be ready for the start of the 1997 school year. For sure there would be no place to practice football at the site. So the first thing I had to do was to find daily transportation, and luckily the school system’s “bus barn” was right next door to Indian Creek.
The school system transportation director, recognizing that I had my Commercial Drivers’ License, gave me permission to drive the team bus
every afternoon to and from practice, and even designated a bus dedicated to transporting the Panthers.
The search ended at Legion Field, on Mill Street.
Now, Legion Field did not look anything like it does today, I want to tell you. The ground was hard as concrete. My son and I mowed the grass, intentionally leaving it as high as possible for some sort of cushion, but it was not a good situation at all.
The first day of practice rolled around and found the inaugural edition of the Indian Creek Middle School Panthers running through drills at Legion Field. Sure enough, one of the kids fell awkwardly onto the turf, breaking his arm.
No kidding. On the first day of practice — doing all we could to prevent it — a kid broke his arm.
Now, any coach worth his salt will tell you that one of the key ingredients for a successful program is having a support group of parents who are willing to jump in there and do whatever is needed in order to help. As it so happened, the inaugural group of Indian Creek Panther parents contained some of the finest worker bees ever assembled. They started making phone calls that evening, and the next morning I was informed through official channels that Indian Creek’s football team was welcome to practice on the plush carpet of lush outfield grass on the Eastside High baseball field.
I don’t know who appreciated the Eastside baseball field more; me, the other coaches, the parents or the players. It makes a huge difference when you’re running a tackling drill to know that any injury sustained will be a result of a tremendous hit from a player, as opposed to landing on concrete.
In 1997, ICMS belonged to the Metro Middle School Athletic League, which had two regions. The East Region was comprised of Newton and Rockdale middle schools, plus Monticello. Members of the West Region included county middle schools from Henry and Fayette.
There was no overpowering program in the East at that time, but the big dog — not only in the West but the winner of eight titles in the decade of the 90’s — was Henry County Junior High. As the 1997 season began, the only school to have won a league title in the 90’s other than Henry had been the 1990 Monticello team, which I’d had the privilege of coaching. Even then, we’d only beaten Henry, 14-8.
None of that mattered on the second day of practice in 1997, however. Along with assistant coaches Hank Holder, Michael Smith-Foot and Matthew Jackson, I was just happy to have a nice place to practice and a great group of supportive parents. Not to mention perhaps the greatest single group of football athletes to come along in one class in these parts.
Limited by GHSA rule to only three weeks of practice prior to the first game, Indian Creek kicked off the ‘97 season at Sharp Stadium, hosting Memorial Middle from Rockdale. Memorial’s coaches apparently felt, erroneously, that since ICMS was a brand new school the team would be made up of kids brand new to football. Along about the time we built a 20-0 lead our chain crew overheard one of their coaches said, “We might better start practicing ‘til 6 p.m.”
ICMS played the first three regular season games against the Rockdale schools, and were never challenged. The Panthers beat Memorial, 28-8, handled Edwards, 25-14, and crushed Conyers, 38-6. Then it was time to face the Newton schools and Monticello, three pretty tough opponents.
Cousins came to Sharp Stadium as prepared as any team could be, and it was all ICMS could do to prevail, 12-6. Then the Panthers traveled to Monticello, the team favored to win the East region. We jumped on the Hurricanes early, scoring twice. But one of the toughest kids I ever coached, Wesley Atha, was sidelined with an injury. Wesley was a multi-position guy, playing tight end, fullback, pulling guard and linebacker, as we needed him. For everybody on the field and in the stands, his absence loomed large, indeed.
Assistant coach Hank Holder’s boy, Huck, was a seventhgrade linebacker and Atha’s backup. Huck went in on the next defensive series, and Monticello tested him immediately, faking a power dive right at him and then tossing a pop pass toward the tight end making for the seam. Huck respected the fake, retreated into his hook zone coverage, intercepted the pass and ran it back some 35 yards for a monumentally huge touchdown.
We went on to crush Monticello, 26-6, and ended the regular season by shutting out Clements, 12-0, at Sharp Stadium.
The Cinderella story of a first-year team going undefeated in their inaugural season was not over. Playing in the first-ever playoff game the following week, ICMS hosted Eagle’s Landing Middle School and won that game convincingly to move to 7-0 on the season. The following week the Panthers hosted the big bad boys of the West, Henry County Junior High, for the league championship at Sharp Stadium.
We did not win the title, but our kids played their hearts out against a physically superior team as we got beat, 16-0. In fact, had our defense not forced and recovered five fumbles, all of which stopped relentless drives, it could have been far worse.
And any coach worth his salt will also tell you that there is a huge difference between getting beat, as opposed to losing. If you get beat, that means the other guy was better than you were that night. If you lose, that means you should have won and you did something to give it away.
Hey, I’m here to tell you, if those same two teams played 10 times, Henry County would win ‘em all. They were that big, that physical and they didn’t do anything to beat themselves.
So this summer Cinderella turns 10 years old. I’ve lost touch with most of the guys from those middle school years, but I saw my fullback, Lindsey Belcher, not too long ago at the car wash near the square. Lindsey still looks like he could suit up and get after it. I also saw my quarterback, Justin Hipps, from a distance a few months ago. Justin’s mom — the late Kathy Hipps, who lost a courageous battle with cancer several years ago — was one of absolute solid rocks in that parental support group. And not long ago I ran into one of the greatest kids on that team, Matt Cooper, who served with the Georgia National Guard 48th Infantry Brigade in Iraq and returned home safely.
How long is 10 years? The youngest of the ’97 Panthers, chronologically, was my seventh-grade son, Davis. Three months ago we celebrated his graduation from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
So as the 2007 season nears official kickoff, and I contemplate the long, hot summer which has gained a spot in Georgia’s record books, it’s not hard for me to recall exactly where I was 10 years ago and what I was doing.
I had a date with Cinderella, one which I’ll never forget.