Clay-Chalkville football brought community together, pushed it forward in tough times
By Gary Lloyd
AUBURN — They say it’s not about how you start, but how you finish.
That can be said about an individual, a company, a team. In this case, it’s about a city of approximately 10,000 people, and how a football team helped boost its spirit when it was going through negative headline after negative headline.
You can trace it to late 2011, when the Clay-Chalkville football team was cast out of the Class 6A playoffs for playing an ineligible player. That team might have won it all.
In January 2012, though, something happened that made football seem unimportant, even in this pigskin-crazy state. A tornado ripped through Clay, destroying 98 structures while damaging hundreds more. A 16-year-old girl died.
Fast forward to this year and the hits have continued. In February, a Clay-Chalkville High School student started a fire in a school bathroom and was charged with arson. In April, junior linebacker Mekail Evans died suddenly after working out at the YMCA. In July, Clayridge Baptist Church was heavily damaged by a fire.
In late July, the city council approved a five-millage property tax for city residents to originally go toward a city school system or police department. City council members ended up with differing opinions of what the money should go toward. That’s still up in the air.
In early September, senior running back Art Smith’s mother died. A couple weeks later, 1999 Clay-Chalkville High School graduate Doug Hutcheson was one of three men killed — including the shooter — in a workplace shooting at the UPS Customer Center in Birmingham.
In early October, the Winn-Dixie on Old Springville Road announced its closing, an estimated $250,000 hit in tax revenue for Clay. City officials worried about finances. That same week, residents intensely debated over whether a coach should have led a pre-game prayer at a Clay Youth Sports football game.
The three Clay schools were placed on a soft lockdown in late October while authorities searched for burglary suspects. That lasted almost two hours.
In the second round of the Class 6A playoffs, senior running back Terelle West tore his ACL, ending his career. The next week, it was announced that a suspect in the robbery of the Radio Shack in Trussville was a Clay-Chalkville High School student. The latest negative headline is about the potential of Clay City Hall no longer offering vehicle tag sales and renewals, after just a few months.
So much negative. Where’s the positive? Enter Clay-Chalkville High School football. It started with an excitement over new field turf installed at Cougar Stadium in August. It has ended with a perfect season and a Class 6A state championship, and a whole lot of inspiration in between.
“They’ve seen how a community comes together, they’ve seen how we drop our differences when tragedy strikes and we come together to help each other,” said Clay-Chalkville High School Principal Michael Lee. “They’ve seen that from their leadership, from city leadership, from school leadership, from their coaching staff. I think the things that this group has been through and the way they’ve seen people pull together when things don’t go right is going to help them face adversity.”
City leaders have all said it. There’s something about this fall that has been amazing. Lee said the football team’s success has instilled a sense of pride in the students, faculty and residents. Mayor Charles Webster has been to every game and has gotten to know players through driving them to games and to their homes on a school bus. Clay City Councilwoman Becky Johnson said Friday nights at Cougar Stadium this fall felt how they used to feel.
“It is really the only place in Clay that is really the community place,” said Clay-Chalkville head coach Jerry Hood.
He’s right. People can differ over the coach-led prayer issue or what to do with property tax funds. But inside the stadium, those mad at each other during the work week high-five over touchdowns.
“On Friday nights, those differences go away,” Lee said.
The players felt it all season. They’ve had fans in the past, the same moms and dads, same students in their usual corner. But this season they had a fan base.
“They came out every single game supporting us,” said senior cornerback Kam Prewitt. “We stood out to the community and we’re making a difference.”
Before the season, junior wide receiver T.J. Simmons heard a song that featured the acronym O.T.F. He decided that could stand for Only The Family, and it was approved for the team’s T-shirt this season. Team members didn’t want those outside the football program to wear it. It was for them, by them.
“Only the family, only us,” said senior defensive end Kendell Jones. “We’ve got each others’ backs.”
With the hardships the team has gone through this year, the focus has been on working hard at the task at hand and playing for each other.
“It’s family, hard work, and that’s just how our mindsets are,” said Smith, who filled in admirably when West was injured.
That mindset starts from the top, with Hood, who’s led the program for six years. That length of time makes any team stable.
“The thing that’s impressive is it’s just good folks (in Clay),” Hood said. “They don’t try to be somebody they’re not. They just are good people and they’ve bought in to, ‘Take my son and discipline him in a way that he knows you love him but it’s tough so that when he grows up life doesn’t hit him and he crumbles.’ That’s our mentality.”
This team hasn’t let itself be a victim to any circumstance and has held strong in the face of many adverse situations, especially for teenagers. Community members can see and feel that, as can other students in the school. Lee, when talking about that, caught himself calling the players “kids” when he meant to say “young men.”
“I just think what we’ve got is special and this community is special,” Lee said. “It’s an amazing place to be.”
Many have taken notice. The city of Clay partnered with the Jefferson County Board of Education to make the turf field happen. Now the board is making comments to Webster about using Clay-Chalkville as a model for what other schools should be.
“They’ve seen more of a community support and community involvement,” he said.
The football team finished this season strong. The community helped the team in a big way. The team helped the community in a huge way. That’s what families do.
“It just sends a wave all the way through the school, through the community,” Webster said. “I think the excitement is really good for the whole community. I think it carries through and affects everybody. It really does.”
When the 36-31 Clay-Chalkville win over Saraland was about 20 minutes old, Simmons said the state championship rings will hopefully have “OTF” inscribed on them, and a tribute to Evans. Hood, in his post-game press conference, acknowledged Evans and the other struggles the team and community went through in the last year.
“We know this football thing is so much more than winning the state championship for us,” he said.
Contact Gary Lloyd at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.