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Friday Night Football Reflections

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For nearly 20 years, 19 to be exact, the place has been a familiar one on most fall Friday nights.

Sure, the states and towns may have differed in one way or another, but since August of 1999, Friday nights have been spent in a press box somewhere covering high school football.

With so many games during that time, a few things are bound to stick out and resonate.

Here are some of them.

The First Time Out

Back in the late summer of 1999, when I was a freshman at Valdosta State, the Valdosta Daily Times got a tip that I might be interested in helping them with high school football coverage of the two teams in their coverage area at the time in Florida, Madison County and Hamilton County. For someone who one day aspired to be a full-time sportswriter, there could not have been a better opportunity. The basic goal was to do a story each week on each team and cover whichever team was at home that Friday. Through that process, I was able to learn what it was like to get the know coaches and develop a relationship with them. One was actually a former teacher I had at Lowndes (Bruce Begue) and the other would later come to Lowndes (more on that later). I don’t remember who Hamilton County played on that hot August night to open the season, but I won’t forget the emotion of, ‘hey, I am actually covering a game.’

How ’bout them Cowboys!

Before he was hired at Lowndes, I got to know Randy McPherson as the head coach of Madison County. When I would go by for a weekly chat after practice, it would usually consist of drinking back a Gatorade from the coach’s office fridge and not only talking about his own team, but the game of football itself…all as he began to pore over volumes of game film and even point out details of what was on the film. I covered Madison for three years, and after two years of near misses, a state title was captured in 2001. For a young college kid, it was surreal covering a game in the FSU press box as Madison won. Oh, and turning around and having a conversation with FSU broadcasting legend Gene Deckerhoff was not too bad, either.

Bazemore-Hyder

In Valdosta, two things take the stage each Friday night – when Valdosta and/or Lowndes plays at home. It’s the biggest game in town, and growing up, one of the first things you did the next morning was pick up the paper to read the game story and box score. In 2001, when I covered Madison County, it played at Valdosta, and the call was made for me to cover the game that night. It was humbling sitting in the press box, knowing how many storied moments had happened on the field before. Of course, there was pressure…also knowing that all of town knew your name was on the story the next day since the local radio station would always use your halftime stats and read them off saying, ‘Halftime stats provided by Brad Harrison of the Valdosta Daily Times..”

Valdosta edged out Madison County that night. After the game, then-VHS head coach Mike O’Brien had high praise for Madison, predicting that the Cowboys would win a state title that year. He was right.

Lumberton

My first job after graduating college was in Lumberton, NC. And while I moved a few weeks into the season, the first game that I covered there, when Lumberton opened the season with a win after being winless the year before, left a big impact. After getting to know the multiple players and coaches during the summer, seeing their jubilation of getting a win was pure joy that I’ll never forget.

Demons and Eagles

Growing up in Valdosta, you get spoiled by the passion that comes out of the Winnersville Classic. Outside of that rivalry, the one between Warner Robins and Northside is not too far behind. It’s tough the match the level of intensity between the Demons and Eagles, even if the energy is a bit diluted compared to the past before Veterans and Houston County’s programs existed.

First Time In The Telegraph

Officially, I started at The Macon Telegraph in September of 2006. Unofficially, my first time with a byline there was December of 2000, albeit unexpectedly. The Friday night after Thanksgiving, since I was already in Macon with family from the day before, I slotted myself into covering Cook in the playoffs against Wilkinson County while I was stringing (even if it felt full-time) for the Valdosta Daily Times. Back then, cell phone hot spots did not exist. Often, writers would find a local newspaper office and use a computer there to file a story.

With the game being played in Macon at Thompson Stadium, it made logical sense for me to call up The Telegraph, and they obliged to let me use a spare connection to file my story. Before I filed, I got a tap on my shoulder asking if they could run my story, which I had no issue with. It was surreal to see my name in print the next day or even a week or two later when a family member mailed me a clipping, seeing my name in the sports section I had read so much growing up on trips to Macon.

Resurgence

It’s no fun showing up to games watching teams hit speed bump after speed bump with no hope of winning. When the ship turns around, it’s all the more fun to see the players and others in the program have a taste of success. First-hand being able to see Barney Hester’s turnaround of the Howard program was unforgettable, as was Justin Rogers taking the Jones County program to among the best in its classification. The energy around the Jones County program and what it has meant to Gray, made it one of the funnest atmospheres around.

Atmosphere, Part II

Given my commute home from Atlanta Motor Speedway for eight years, it was logical for me to stop off in Forsyth to cover Mary Persons. Truth be told, I got spoiled to be able to cover not only a tradition-laden program, but also one of the more electric places in the midstate to see a football game. Few things beat a packed house at Dan Pitts Stadium with fans lining the hill to watch the contest on the field surrounded by the stands and elevated hills around it.

Sense of Community

In November of 2014, I got up on a Friday with plans that night to cover Mary Persons that night in the playoffs against Westover and their big standout lineman – Trenton Thompson. That all changed around 1 pm when I got the call that our daughter, then four months old, was being taken to the ER for what ended up being a three-week stay for RSV and the flu.

There are many things that stick out from that time.

Among them was a week or so later when I showed up to cover Stratford Academy and without prompting, had multiple Stratford coaches ask how our daughter was doing. I had a similar question when I talked to Mary Persons head coach for a preview story during that timeframe.

Things like that…they remind that if you’re around high school football long enough, it’s not just what happens on Friday nights. It’s the community and family that makes it special.

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Sports and the power of community

From time to time, handwringing over the emphasis and resources poured into athletics is brought to the forefront.

The past few days around the campus of Mercer University and around Macon, Ga., have cemented a large reason why.

Both Mercer and the city of Macon have received exposure and publicity that no amount of money could have brought.

Consider this. During the hour after the Bears’ March Madness-rocking upset of Duke, Mercer’s Web site received 72,000 visits…93 percent of which were first-time visitors.

Needless to say, a lot of March Madness conversations on Friday were something to the effect of “Mercer? Where in the heck is Mercer?”

Mercer’s win against Duke also brought national attention toward Mercer – even on the front page of the New York Times, and the front page of the Macon Telegraph was featured on the front of ESPN.com.

But there was more to the past three days than just on the hardwood.

Young and old, poor and rich, liberal and conservative all united under one common cause – that the hometown team was carrying the flag of Macon – representing them, and making everyone, no matter if they live in Macon now or did so in the past, immensely proud of have a tie in any way to Mercer and Macon, Ga.

Fans of the University of Georgia, known to detest any shade of orange, were grasping for any shade of the color to root on Mercer.

For a few days, folks walked around town with their chests proudly stuck out, proclaiming that it was a point of pride to be from Macon, Ga.

Unfair or not, Macon has suffered from a bad perception, a view that a new generation of Maconites are fighting like mad to dig the city out of (and doing a very good job of it, by the way).

But for a few days, everyone was proud to be from the town that has also given the world the Allman Brothers and Otis Redding, among others.

And all of that local and regional pride is rooted in one thing – the power that comes from athletics impacting a community.