After 16 hours, Morrow players become 'Friends' for life

Morrow assistant football coach Mac Mikissic doesn't drive 16 hours to Winfield, Kan., during his spring break for just any football player. They must have qualities worth entrusting to the stewardship of Monty Lewis, head football coach at Friends University, the vanguard of a NAIA program in the heart of the Midwest. They must fit with the esoteric traditions of Moundbuilders.

Mikissic found himself this spring break making that drive to see Lewis. He brought along with him Mustangs football players Latrellis Boatright, Dexter Davis and Patrick Neal. When they left Wednesday, they returned after signing national letters of intent, inducting themselves into a fraternity of players special to Mikissic.

Mikissic played for Lewis at Southwestern College, another Kansas school, where Lewis compiled a 60-32 record in eight years. He made his own exodus from Georgia into the bucolic region and left a Moundbuilder himself.

By the way. What is a Moundbuilder?

Well, it's the mascot at Southwestern. It's the reason each student finds a rock, decorates it, then congregates to the Mound. Since 1927, students at Southwestern have deposited their rocks on top of the Mound after hearing a speech from the school's dean. Newsweek once declared Moundbuilders among the 15 most bizarre college and university mascots and nicknames in the country. When Mikissic arrived with his Morrow players for their visit, they went to see the Mound. His rock was still there.

"Once you go there, it's once a Moundbuilder, always a Moundbuilder," Mikissic said.

Mikissic brought Boatright, Davis and Neal into a level of football far beneath the prestige and pagaentry of Division I. The NAIA doesn't allow schools to extend formal athletic scholarships to recruits. It's the only collegiate organization that permits membership to colleges and universities outside the U.S. Six colleges from Canada are members, and one from the Bahamas.

We're more enthralled by the circus spectacles from the Division I. Most know of Clemson's claim to the most exciting 25 seconds in college football. Players get dressed, ride down Williamson Road, enter Clemson Memorial Stadium gate, touch Howard's rock and run down a hill beneath a cacophony of canon fire, balloons and crowd roar.

But the tradition Mikissic experienced at Southwestern was no less significant. That's why he brought Boatright, Davis and Neal to play for Lewis at Friends. Mikissic's high school football coach - who also happened to play under Lewis - had done the same for him.

He had always wanted to pass on that chance to others, but only "if they were the right type of person," he said. "It's an experience you get. Going to Kansas is a different culture. You're going to a school far away instead of here in Georgia with all your friends.

"My coached played for Lewis. It was kind of like a tradition. He only sends a certain type of player there."

Boatright, Davis and Neal are the only players from Morrow's 2008 team to ensure their football career extends into college. In their four years at Morrow, the Mustangs were a picture of futility, going 6-34. Friends finished as the No. 9 team in the country in the NAIA Football Top 25 Postseason Poll. Finally, they'll have an opportunity to savor the euphoria of victory on a regular basis.

"I feel good," Boatright said. "It's going to take a lot of work."

Davis added: "It's the best thing ever to happen to me."

But more importantly, they'll carry on a time-honored tradition of high school football coaches combing the U.S. for universities, big or small, to send their players to for an opportunity to play football, prolong their education and increase their chance for success.

For Mikissic, that was worth driving 16 hours to Kansas.

"I just felt like I wanted to give them the opportunity I got," he said. "That's what we're here for."

Brian Paglia is a sportswriter with the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can reached at 770-478-5753 ext. 253 or bpaglia@news-daily.com