Queen’s “We are the Champions” blared across the speakers Wednesday night at Tiger Stadium in Adairsville, as graduating senior Angel Banda tried to convey the significance of the moment he was experiencing.
Just seconds prior, the standout wrestler got choked up thanking all the friends, family and coaches in attendance for a ceremony marking his signing with Reinhardt. After finally getting through his brief, emotional speech, Banda wiped away the tears with his right hand that held a state championship ring earned this year but given to him just before the ceremony.
“It means the world,” Banda said, as Freddy Mercury began his first run through the chorus. “I didn’t even know I’d be able to be a state champion or have a signing. …
"It’s really hard to even put into words how I feel right now.”
While Banda’s ceremony — deservedly so — included the most pomp and circumstance, it was just one segment of a six-part series of signings that played out Wednesday evening inside the stadium. In an attempt to give the departing students a “senior week” experience, the signings marked the end of a four-night run of events honoring AHS seniors, following a military graduation, an academic honors ceremony and a spring sports senior night.
“We always want to honor them when they have an accomplishment like this,” Adairsville athletic director Meredith Barnhill said. “Even though it was modified and not the normal ceremony, we wanted them to realize how proud we are of them.”
The string of signings, which each took place roughly 30 minutes apart, began with Jaxon Welchel inking with the LaGrange College men’s basketball program. Welchel picked up an offer after visiting the campus in mid-March — just before the COVID-19 outbreak changed the entire rest of his senior year.
Even though Welchel had been looking forward to more visits and other chances to showcase his talents to college coaches, the 6-foot-9 center is more than thrilled to continue his hoops career with the Panthers.
“I just liked the feel,” Welchel said of the Troup County campus. “I feel like everyone got along together like a family, kind of like Adairsville. And there’s a lake near the school, which I like.”
Some of the most light-hearted moments of the night came during the signing for Welchel’s teammate Savaun Henderson, as the two-sport star will be joining the football team at Shorter.
Henderson underwent oral surgery earlier in the day, but the effects of the procedure hadn’t quite worn off by the time he arrived at the stadium. His Adairsville teammates made sure to give him plenty of grief, as Henderson almost sleepwalked through the event.
The kidding, though, was all in good fun. It reminded Barnhill of the sort of things she and the rest of the faculty missed out on seeing the past few months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As much fun as it was to acknowledge their accomplishments and be able to see them on nights like this, the most fun part, I thought, was getting to see them together, laughing and cutting up again,” Barnhill said. “… That’s what we missed, seeing them get to be themselves.”
While his altered state of mind kept Henderson from being able to conduct a proper interview Wednesday night, he had recovered enough by Thursday afternoon to reflect on the event, which he, luckily, did recall happening.
“I’m very thankful that I get to have one,” Henderson said of the signing, “because most people didn’t get to have one, period.”
He’s looking forward to being close to home, so that his friends and family can easily make the trip to Rome to watch him play. But even more than that, Henderson is excited to be joining a program that will view him as more than just an athlete.
“I like how they made it seem like everything is bigger than football,” Henderson said. “They want to make us better football players but also better men, too.”
Henderson’s football teammate, TyShawn Savage also participated in the event. A signee for University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky, Savage showed his gratitude for all those who helped him achieve success at Adairsville.
“Everything,” Savage said about what he’ll remember about his time as a Tiger. “My friends, my coaches and everybody who pushed me to get me to this point where I’m at now. They’re all just great individuals.
“For the seniors upcoming and everybody else, they’re going to have a fun time here. I hope I can come back and watch these boys play. I love this place.”
Whereas four of Wednesday’s signees clearly made pursuing an athletic scholarship a chief priority, the other two found their offers a bit more serendipitously.
Grace Beasley learned she had been accepted to Piedmont in May, and then later discovered that the Demorest-based institution was starting a swim program, with its first varsity season set to take place during the upcoming school year.
She jumped at the opportunity to join the team for its debut season.
“It’s something I’ve been doing the last four years, so it’s nothing new,” Beasley said. “But it will be more intense, which is a good thing.”
Similarly, James Standridge gets to experience the best of both worlds at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. He will be able to wrestle at the collegiate level, while also pursuing his preferred career path as a paramedic and firefighter.
“It’s amazing, because most of my career path is all [taught through] technical schools now and not actually in colleges,” Standridge said. “So it’s good that I can still wrestle for a few more years and do what I want to do.”
Standridge ended his Adairsville career with a victory at state in Class 3A's third-place match at 132 pounds on Feb. 15 in Macon. A few hours later, Banda claimed the 113-pound division title.
On Wednesday night, both were winners once again, as were their fellow signees. There was no time for losers.
“I’m very grateful to even be here to sign,” Banda said. “School ended and I thought everything was done, but we made a way.”