By Gary Lloyd
CLAY — His words from the fall of 2011 still ring true.
Clay-Chalkville head football coach Jerry Hood, speaking at the time about his undefeated team that forfeited nine wins due to playing an ineligible player, said he was proud of his players for “what they have done, what they have endured and what they continue to fight for.”
The 29 seniors on the 2014 Clay-Chalkville football team didn’t have on-field roles back in 2011, but they were freshmen. They were in the halls at Clay-Chalkville High School, in the weight room that overlooks the student parking lot. They felt the anger and disappointment of having an Alabama Supreme Court ruling cast their varsity football team — which was ranked No. 1 in Class 6A — out of the playoffs, a judge’s order ending their season instead of a better football team. There may not have been one.
“No one can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are not the best team in Alabama,” Hood said in 2011. “We can probably make a claim that we believe we are the best team in Alabama. No one can dispute that because we don’t get a chance.”
But Hood mainly spoke of lessons in adulthood for kids, and their character, honor, integrity, and class. He said that in the face of what they went through, it was a hard thing to do, to maintain those positive traits.
Those lessons from three seasons ago can be seen as contributing factors for this season’s success through seven games, which Clay-Chalkville has won by an average margin of 30 points per contest. Hood and players likely don’t talk about the 2011 season — they’re always focused on the next opponent — but somewhere inside, the moral of that entire 2011 debacle is looming. That 2011 season made Hood and his assistants better coaches, no doubt.
This year’s squad can in part be defined by how tight of a group it is and how hard it works. Players have state championship rings on their minds just like any other school, but instead of talking about the shiny bling itself, they talk about the work it will take to get that ring.
Before the question “What is the chemistry like on this team?” was completed at an interview session with Clay-Chalkville players this summer, senior defensive back Torrence Willis jumped in.
“How we stick together,” Willis said.
They stuck together through a January 2012 tornado that ripped apart homes and killed one teenage girl in Clay. They stuck together through the April death of teammate and linebacker Mekail Evans. Three weeks ago, senior running back Art Smith’s mom died, Hood said.
“He had a rough time and handled it in a way that I haven’t seen adults handle a loss suddenly like that,” Hood said.
These tragedies have brought together an already close-knit team and community. Players with scholarship offers deflect attention because the focus should be on the team, they say. One player’s Twitter bio says to “grind now shine later,” referencing that hard work now will pay off in the long run. Each player wears a navy blue shirt that reads “OTF Squad” on the back — OTF stands for Only The Family.
“I just think that everyone on this team has the exact same mindset,” said senior cornerback Kam Prewitt. “Everyone on this team wants to strive to be perfect. It’s a family thing. We have a very strong bond. We don’t say OTF for no reason.”
When the most anticipated regular season game this year — No. 2 Clay-Chalkville at No. 3 Shades Valley — managed just four plays before being postponed Friday, players were told not to be on social media Friday night. Coaches checked Twitter periodically, to make sure that players had listened, that they were focused. Hood had said that any player on social media Friday night wouldn’t be playing Saturday. It didn’t look as if anyone sat out due to Twitter talk.
Clay-Chalkville had a normal routine Saturday morning despite Friday’s lightning and rain. The game resumed at 11 a.m. Saturday, and the Cougars scored on their first snap — after a false start penalty — and cruised to a 59-27 win at Frank Nix Stadium. Junior wide receiver T.J. Simmons called it “just business as usual.”
“We’ve played in so many big games that we’re just used to it,” he said.
Senior defensive end Kendell Jones was already thinking ahead, not five minutes after the lightbulbs on the scoreboard were turned off.
“It’s a very big win but we have to focus on our next opponent,” he said.
Disposing of one of the best teams in Class 6A by 32 points in their stadium is a big deal. Hood was asked afterward if Clay-Chalkville should be No. 1, a ranking it hasn’t held since Week 9 of that 2011 season, before the nine wins were stripped. He said no, that Spanish Fort is No. 1 right now, that Opelika, Blount, Carver-Montgomery, Florence and Shades Valley are all legitimate contenders. Always deflecting, always keeping his players humble.
“I think you throw them up in a mixed bag,” Hood said of the teams.
Hood called the Shades Valley victory a “humongous win for these kids.” He wanted Clay-Chalkville to show toughness in the game. The Cougars showed toughness and character. What does the win say?
“It says that hard work on a consistent basis becomes habit,” Hood said. “When that becomes a habit, you expect these kind of games to go this way. Just that positive mental energy.”
This team possesses that positive mental energy so far through seven games. It appears as though that energy is growing, as if the team drank a Red Bull but has yet to feel the crash. That crash may not come. The way this team prepares, it’s hard to foresee it.
An already tight team is getting tighter. An already great team is getting better.
And that’s a scary combination.
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.