By Brian Paglia
On the morning of August 28, 2008, a school community of 52,800 students in Clayton County brooded, waiting for a decision to be handed down by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) on the fate of the county's school accreditation.
Hours later, SACS stripped Clayton County of its accreditation. An inevitable exodus of students and their families ensued. Some reports estimated nearly 50 students were leaving the county each day. After the first 10 days, 2,800 students were gone.
"That was the dooms day call," Lovejoy football coach Al Hughes recalls.
The dour assumption was that the accreditation loss would sap county teams of their elite talent, and yet seventeen students signed scholarships to play football at some higher level Wednesday on National Signing Day, right on par with the county's average of 18 football recruits in the three previous years.
"Some of them moved off to other places or whatever because of accreditation," Hughes said, "but our motto here has been that those who stay will be champions. And we're proud of those who stayed, and we're proud that they are going forward and earned themselves a chance to play at the next level."
Later on that August day last year, Riverdale football coach Nick Davis held a parent meeting with the school's principal, head counselor and advisors from several schools. Davis' team featured one player, Hakeem Smith, who had committed to play at Division I-school Lousiville and several other players with talent enough to earn scholarships at smaller colleges. He knew his players' families would panic at their sons' future.
"If you don't educate them, they're not going to know," Davis said. "We did a good job of that, educating our parents to let them know this is not going to affect athletic scholarships."
Eventually, Smith still signed his national letter of intent to play for Louisville. So did seven more Raiders for Division I-AA, Division II and junior college schools. So did Lovejoy's Andre Harris (Auburn), North Clayton's Emmanuel Dieke (Georgia Tech) and Jonesboro's Darius McKeller (Alabama).
"If you're good enough, they will find a way to get you in their school somehow, some way," said Chad Simmons, a recruiting analyst with Scout.com. "School aren't going to back off. If you're a special player, they'll work extra hard to find a way to get you in.
"Everybody wants to be the top dog in the SEC. Everybody wants to be Florida. Everybody wants to come in Georgia and beat Georgia for their own Peach State kids. I just don't see that changing anything because of the accreditation in Clayton County."
Not all athletes' circumstances were the same. Many anticipated taking advantage of the HOPE scholarship as an unofficial athletic scholarship to play at smaller Georgia schools, but the tumult of the accreditation loss made the HOPE's reliability uncertain. Even more players, in reality, held no future in athletics at all.
"You had to be honest with those players," Davis said. "As a coach, you kind of know if a kid's going to be recruitable. If I had a kid that was going to be real strong academically and he was going to go for HOPE, and we were going to lose HOPE, of course, he needs to look at other options."
Defections happened, and it affected the number of recruits at some schools. North Clayton perennially sends five or six players off to the next level, but it had just Dieke and Jeremy Ross (Virginia Union) this year.
But coaches said they were grateful for the ones who stayed. Before Wednesday, Davis met with his group of recruits to remind them that this was their day, one worth celebrating and enjoying, a day rumored at one time to be impossible.