By Brian Paglia
In the 10 years that C.W. Campbell was the head coach at Lovejoy High School since the school's inception in 1990, he won 60 games, had seven winnings season and one undefeated regular season.
He built the Wildcats program from the ground up, establishing its creeds and philosophies, its work ethic and goals. After just three seasons, Lovejoy had already become a playoff-caliber program.
Despite Lovejoy's precipitous climb in reputation and success, only one player went on to play for a major collegiate football program in Campbell's first nine years. According to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, linebacker Thomas Diggs signed with Georgia Tech in 1995.
Then came 2000. The Wildcats had another respectable season, going 7-3, just missing a chance to make the playoffs. But more remarkably, five Lovejoy players signed scholarships with elite college football programs such as Auburn, Notre Dame and Kentucky.The trend continued in the years that followed. Two more signed with prestigious schools Oklahoma and Mississippi State in 2003. Three signed with Tennessee, Georgia and Illinois the next year. Lovejoy sent two more to Mississippi State and Tennessee the following year. Thirteen Wildcats players have signed scholarships with prominent Division I football programs since that 2001 class, including countless others to smaller college teams.
Where once Lovejoy was virtually anonymous to colleges, it had suddenly become what's known in the recruiting vernacular as a "factory" of football talent.
"People started moving a little bit south from Clayton County to the edge of the Hampton, Henry County area, and they kind of got a lot of talent there," said Chad Simmons, a recruiting analyst with Scout.com. "It started with Lovejoy, and it's kind of spread out a lot more now."
Lovejoy is not alone anymore. The Southern Crescent is fast becoming a location worth excavating for college recruiters. Six players from Clayton and Henry counties signed their national letters of intent Wednesday for elite football programs amongst the 36 players that later faxed their letters to their respective schools.
The Southern Crescent's emergence in the national recruiting scene has come rapidly. But it mirrors the area's population growth as it becomes an increasingly popular annex of the Atlanta metropolitan area.
"If you get on Interstate 285," Lovejoy coach Al Hughes said, "and start around the perimeter, you can get off anywhere you want to and find enough good athletes to make pretty good college football teams. We just happen to be within that hot-bed of athletes statewide."
According to the last United State census conducted in 2006, Clayton County's population increased by 14.7 percent. With 271,240 residents, it's the fifth largest of the metro counties. Henry County grew by almost 50 percent.
"We've had tremendous growth the past 10 years," Riverdale coach Nick Davis said. "We've been fortunate we've had good coaches that are making sure the kids are doing what they need to academically to put themselves in position to be recruited. Football, if you look at the past year with the teams we had in the playoffs, the caliber of players and the caliber of play in this area has grown tremendously over the last couple of years."
Indeed, the Southern Crescent had some of its most high-profile recruits this season. Luella's Roderick Sweeting and North Clayton's Emmanuel Dieke committed to Georgia Tech months ago. Likewise, Riverdale's Hakeem Smith (Louisville), Jonesboro's Darius McKellar (Alabama) and Lovejoy's Andre Harris (Lovejoy) made their college choices well in advance of signing their letters of intent.
"I've seen it change dramatically over the last nine, 10 years, especially the last couple of years," Henry County coach Mike Rozier said. "The talent level for college football in our county has taken off and made big strides. There for awhile, we very rarely had a Division I player in the county, and now it just seems like every school's got a number of kids that are able to go to the D-I level."
In recruiting, the value of a coveted and lauded recruit can't be underestimated. Recruits raise the profile not only of their own school but also for the area. Last year, Henry County wide receiver Chris Jackson signed with Alabama. As college coaches watched Jackson in person and in film, they began to notice the Warhawks' junior wide receiver.
Jackson's recruitment helped that junior wideout, Jamal Patterson, who honored his commitment to Stanford, receive nearly 50 scholarship offers from almost every significant college football program in the country. And it helped attract another elite talent in rising senior Markeith Ambles, who transferred from a run-oriented Griffin program to fit his skills better with Henry County's pass-first offense and benefit from Henry County's new reputation as a source for recruits.
"It just takes a few people," Simmons says, "and once one person really gets things started for a certain county, a certain high school, it brings coaches back every year. Once that first or second player comes out, it becomes a regular stop for an SEC and ACC school."