By Rory Sharrock
Every year upon graduation, football players from the Southern Crescent parlay their talents from high school to various college campuses across the country.
From the bright lights of the Southeastern Conference to the intimate settings at Division III schools, the region's former gridiron greats have left their fingerprints on the sport and an impressionable mark on all those who've witnessed their skills.
However, with so many names included on this list, one particular institution stands out as the area's major pipeline between the Friday night lights of high school and the Saturday afternoon madness of NCAA football.
Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Ala. currently features seven players from Clayton and Henry County on its roster, which is tied with Savannah State University for the most of any school in the nation.
Among this crop student-athletes for the Bulldogs includes five freshmen - safety Antonio Barrett (Jonesboro), quarterback Kyle Lacy (Lovejoy), linebacker Christopher Hall (Lovejoy) as well as offensive linemen Jamaal Johnson-Webb (Mundy's Mill) and Darius Brown (Stockbridge).
In addition to the freshmen class, the list is rounded out with two sophomores - linebacker Afu Okosun (Mundy's Mill) and offensive lineman Russell Jackson (Riverdale).
While the transition from high school to college can be difficult at times, both on the field and in the classroom, seeing familiar faces from the old neighborhood has helped the players adjust to the learning curve one step at a time.
Throughout training camp and the early weeks of the season, they've shared old high school stories, but most importantly, developed a strong bond as proud representatives of the Southern Crescent.
"We've all bonded together and we have a good rivalry amongst each other. We talk trash every day. I can't remember a day when we don't talk about it (high school)," said Lacy, who is bidding his time as a freshman learning the offense.
While Lacy has yet to see any action, players such as Barrett, Okosun and Jackson are receiving significant minutes on the field.
Barrett has 13 tackles, two of which were for negative yardage. Okosun has been battling injuries, but has recorded six tackles in two games.
"I didn't really expect to be playing, but things happen," said Barrett.
"Like they said, you have to make the most of your opportunities. They threw me in and said I was ready. So I showed the coaches I could play."
Barrett's play hasn't gone unnoticed back at home as he's received high praises from his peers and former head coach Jarrett Laws at Mt. Zion.
"I've been coaching football for 10 years. I almost had a player in Tampa that made it with the St. Louis Rams. Other than that, he's the best defensive player I've ever coached," said Laws. "I don't mean that from a skill set. From his heart, his character and practice habits -- he's the perfect defensive player. He's the best defensive player that I've seen since I've been here at Mt. Zion."
On Saturday, these former local heroes and the rest of their Bulldog teammates will travel to Indianapolis for an intrastate contest against the defending Black College National Champions, Tuskegee University, in the 25th-annual Circle City Classic at Lucas Oil Stadium. The game will be aired live on the NFL Network at 4 p.m.
Alabama A&M makes its third appearance in the Circle City Classic and looks to go 3-0 in this contest, having beat Grambling State 27-20 in 1990 and Southern 27-11 in 2002.
The Bulldogs got off to a rough start, losing their first three games of the season.
However, they seem to be putting things together after consecutive wins over Central State and conference foe Arkansas-Pine Bluff to stand at 2-3 and 1-0 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).
Tuskegee finished 12-0 last year and looks poised to win another title in 2008, having jumped out to an 4-0 record. The Golden Tigers showcase two players from the Southern Crescent, freshman defensive end Jeremy Brown formally of Stockbridge High School and sophomore wide receiver Kirkland Edmond, who starred for the North Clayton Eagles.
"We have to play this like a regular game. We're not going to be scared of them, but we're going to respect them and give them their props. It's fun to play on TV and I've told my family they don't have to come to the game, they can just watch us on TV," Barrett said.
This year marks the first time Alabama A&M and Tuskegee will face off on the gridiron since 1999, when the Bulldogs won 54-0. Alabama A&M leads the series 23-18-4.