By Erik Harris
CLAY — The 14-0 looks clean, and statistically, it is. Officially, Clay-Chalkville is untouched, unharmed by the presence of defeat.
It takes a closer look to see the bumps and bruises sustained along the way of this “perfect” season.
Just like every other team that’s suited up for the first day of practice and seen its schedule play out in a flash, the Cougars have had bad days. They’ve lost battles, but never lost a war.
Injuries have made their presence known throughout the season. Impact defensive end LaDarius Harris has played with injuries for much of the year, but it hasn’t stopped him from getting in opponents’ backfield weekly.
Terelle West, the school’s all-time leading rusher, was lost for the season early in the second round game against Muscle Shoals, but it didn’t stop Art Smith, a converted defensive back, from stepping in and rushing for 354 yards and three touchdowns in his first two starts from the Clay-Chalkville backfield.
Quarterback Tyrell Pigrome struggled through his worst performance of the season in a quarterfinals fight at Decatur, where he suffered a late head injury, but it didn’t stop him from responding with what some would call the strongest outing of his career on the biggest stage of his career in the semifinal round.
There’s no question that the skies over Cougar Stadium have been clouded from time to time. The only question is why or how do the Cougars walk out dry and victorious every Friday night? How do these cats always land on their feet?
To answer that, you have to look at the man in charge.
It’s long been said that teams take on the personality of their coach and the Cougars, currently ranked atop the Class 6A poll, serve as a perfect illustration of those old words under sixth-year head coach Jerry Hood.
“They are all fighters, not scared of challenges,” Hood said of his roster.
Not counting the nine forfeits from 2011, all of which were wins on the field, Hood is 54-11 in the blue and silver, 10 of those wins coming in postseason play.
All that winning has built trust inside the Clay-Chalkville program. The players trust their veteran coach when he says, “Don’t make winning and losing the main thing,” and he trusts their ability to make plays.
“We give (our players) the freedom to try to make the play, knowing that if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world, play the next play,” Hood said.
According to Hood, it only took one of those 54 wins to earn the trust of his team. He will never forget Aug. 28, 2009, his Cougar Stadium debut. The kids all dressed up in nice polo shirts for school and impressed everybody, Hood said.
“And then that night we won (43-13 over Athens),” he said. “And from then on they thought I knew what I was talking about, rather I did or not.”
More than five years removed from that fashion statement, the level of trust in the locker room has only grown.
Regardless of what happened on the last snap, good or bad, Clay-Chalkville has left it in the past and just kept playing all year, and that’s why they’re one step away from a state championship.