On a balmy August day in 1992, I was laying on the football field at Cass Middle School (the old Cass Middle between Highway 41 and Cassville Road) and the sky was shaking. I had just been trucked by Greg Mock during a “Bull in the Ring” session and I was feeling dizzy. Greg was vicious and he hit me with a full head of steam, knocking me off my feet, and my helmet was turned sideways when I landed.
I remember when a coach yelled “Eleven!” that I was in trouble. Greg’s jersey number was one of those you remembered. Unfortunately for me, I turned a complete circle and Greg was on the 359th degree. Coach Lott ran over to me and helped me up. Adjusting my helmet and holding up fingers to be sure I was still cognizant, he threw me back into the fray. Greg popped me on the shoulder pads and nodded at me — respect earned by coming back for more. Those were the days.
The next morning, my friend Tara Miller came to me in the sixth-grade hall and asked if I had anything planned on Friday nights that fall. Of course, I could only think of “TGIF” TV shows and catching lightning bugs after scarfing a Little Caesar’s pizza. Tara was the daughter of Bruce Miller, the head football coach of Cass High School at the time. I was offered the job of “ball boy” for the varsity team and I would have to attend all the home and away games. After clearing it with my parents, I wholeheartedly accepted.
My family and I went to as many games as possible to support the home team. I remember the first game of 1989 against Adairsville when a huge storm swamped Grassdale Road and lightning delayed the game for almost an hour. The teams were deadlocked and nobody left. We all waited in our cars and when the storm subsided, the game ensued. The Colonels eked out a 16-6 victory and the players, covered in mud and soaked beyond recognition, celebrated at midfield while parents with rock-filled milk jugs hugged in the bleachers.
Despite the lack of success historically, it always gave me pride to see Cass play. Many of those guys were from Cassville or nearby. The others were from the same places my friends called home — Sugar Valley, Taylorsville, White, Emerson, Kingston and Acworth. For better or worse, win or lose, we showed up to rally behind them. They were like giant heroes to me.
An injury-decimated Cass suffered through an 0-10 season in 1991 and the entire program was reeling. Coaches and players alike were determined to prove themselves and my first day on the job, I felt like the 1992 Colonels would be something special. The locker room before the first game against Osborne was very tense. One of the seniors stood up and yelled “0-10, never again!” As I looked across their faces, there were no smiles. Everybody wanted to get off on the right foot.
There is nothing like the smell of pre-game football. It is a combination of cut grass, sweat, barbecue smoke, nervousness, testosterone and superstition. The band strikes up, the team runs out of the locker room and warm-up drills get started — high kicks, helmet touches and last-minute speeches. Pads start popping in the end zones and an occasional Ric Flair-esque “Wooooo!” would come from a player.
As Osborne gathered on the field, Coach Miller started pacing around and I was the lucky one chosen to carry his headset cord for the season. Wireless headsets had not found their way to us yet. Coach was famous for his inability to hold still on the sidelines. One freshman informed me that I was “gonna get about five miles of walking in” that night.
After a quick team prayer, the “GATA team,” also known as the kickoff team, ran onto the field to start the 1992 season. Coach was listening to the coordinators in the booth and after a few moments of processing, all he said was “Tony, all I want is one in the left column tonight.” I silently prayed for victory myself.
The game was a slugfest that resulted in a 12-6 victory. Our quarterback, Doug Martin, was a tough runner along with Telly Carter, our bespectacled tailback. The offensive line really did a fantastic job of limiting Osborne’s pressure. In the trenches, you had guys like Jason Temples, Charles Quijano, Danny Hendrix, Jeremy Shelton and my neighbor, Corey Reed. When playmakers were needed, the Colonels could rely on Nick Roberts, Marty Moore, Scotty Andrews, Charlie Farmer and James Martin. The Cardinals had some athletes on the field, but they were matched step-for-step by Cass on every play.
The defense was a bunch of rough guys that flew around the field with abandon. I guarantee when Jarrod Whelchel or Cedric Benham hit a gap, somebody was getting hurt. Not to mention warriors like Kevin Kellam, Greg Reliford, John Turk, Jason Morrow, Matt Johnson, P.J. Johnson, Foster Bobo, Blake Lockwood and Justin James. I am not sure how many of them played a down in college, but every single man on defense flew to the ball with bad intentions. Many a quarterback or receiver limped to the sideline after a few rounds with these headhunters.
The following weeks saw two more wins, a decisive 17-6 tilt at South Cobb and 24-20 squeaker at home against Alexander. Things were really clicking and the confidence of the players could be felt everywhere. These Colonels were becoming battle-tested and passing with flying colors. Helmets were scarred with opponents’ team colors and jerseys were tattered, but it could not diminish the excitement of 3-0. Fans began to take notice and it was evident in the bleachers.
As the weeks progressed, I learned a great deal about life on a sideline. The absolute joy of victory and the abject despondency of defeat. I figured out the meaning of “waggle,” “trips right,” and “oskie.” I saw young men crying in agony with injuries, only to beg to go back in minutes later. Overheard conversations about women that would make Richard Pryor blush and coaches inventing cuss words that I did not know existed. It was an education in human behavior under immense pressure, but having fun at the same time.
Coach Miller was on an island most of the time. He paced so much that it felt as though we were alone, despite being surrounded by at least 85 people. He was a ball of intensity, but he did not cuss or throw tantrums. “Dadgummit” and “dadgoneit” was all I would hear when things were not going as planned. He allowed the coordinators a great deal of latitude dealing with their players and rarely stepped into their strategy sessions on the bench. A humbling loss to Adairsville took the wind out of their sails and many of the players were furious after the game. They taunted the Tigers with “4-0 we shall go!” prior to kickoff. It was a bitter reminder of 1991 and as we walked off the field, I told Coach Miller I was sad about the loss. “Well,” he said with a hand on my shoulder, “it may just be the wake-up call we needed.”
An angry Cass team took the field at home against Lassiter the next week and pounded the Trojans into submission, 38-20. Honestly, the game was second fiddle to the halftime show, which featured Lassiter’s marching band. As soon as the game resumed in the third quarter, a large portion of their fans piled up in their Miatas and Suburbans to head back to east Cobb.
The next Cobb County team was not so accommodating. McEachern was the class of 5-AAAA, in every aspect you could imagine. The legend is that the school has an eternal trust fund that is limitless, and the athletic budget is no exception. The Indians had the nicest stadium, the best uniforms, the loudest band and more players than any team we faced. I learned two things that night — there is no good way to get to Powder Springs from Cartersville and, some days, Goliath eats David alive. The Indians were superior on every side of the ball and it was evident from kickoff. The Colonels had no chance and McEachern cruised to a 55-0 victory.
It was a quiet bus ride home. It was my first experience with a blowout loss and that helpless feeling is hard to forget. It was like Shane Falco said in “The Replacements” during his metaphoric comparison of losing to quicksand: “You’re in over your head and you can’t breathe.” Even the most confident guys on the team like Roberts and Turk had nothing to say. Emotions ran high and helmets were slammed into the bus seats. The following week was a hangover and the Colonels fell to Paulding County by three touchdowns.
It is during those moments when teams bond together forever. Mutual suffering and hardship forge something that only those who endure it can understand. It is what they talk about years later when they run into each other at the grocery store, sporting events or reunions. Taking it on the chin and living to fight another day is part of football. I knew they were hurting, but these guys did not have any “quit” in them. As we walked off the field after the Paulding County loss, I finally understood the lesson of this great game.
After shellacking Harrison and losing a 3-0 heartbreaker at North Cobb in the bitter cold, it was learned that sadly, the Colonels were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. A victim of the cruel sub-region rules, only two teams from 5-AAAA North would see the postseason: McEachern and Paulding County. The final game would be meaningless in that regard, but to these boys in blue and gold, it meant everything. Cass was sitting at 5-4, facing a Gordon Central team riding a four-game losing streak.
It was a chance to have a winning season, the first one since 1983 and a salve for the wounds of 1991. Cass High declared war on Gordon County that night and, in brutal fashion, dismantled the Warriors in front of the home crowd, 37-7. The team rushed the field and celebrated while players and coaches hugged each other like long-lost friends. Coach Miller may have said a cuss word in his final speech to the team. Even though postseason glory was not their destiny, there was a sense of elation on that field that I still feel today.
The nights I spent on those sidelines made me love the game of football. Every August, I get that sense of giddiness, like it is Christmas morning and Santa just blasted off my roof from delivering presents. Expectations run high and hyperbole fills the air as much as the humidity. It is that hope that keeps us all coming back, no matter how the last season turned out. “This is our year” echoes across this state from all corners. It is a sound sweeter than your grandma’s tea.
For me, I always go back to 1992 and those Colonels, a tough bunch of guys who continue to inspire me, even today. I was thankful to be a small part of that wonderful season.