By Derrick Mahone
As Forest Park coach Jajuan Wright sat in the locker room repairing a helmet, two players came rushing in to place their belongings in a locker before heading to the field.
Wright stopped them and let it be known that he wasn't pleased with their tardiness.
A few minutes later, Wright's cellphone rings and a parent explains why her son would be a few minutes late.
Gone are the days when Forest Park players take practice time for granted.
"Forest Park has been down for too long," Wright says. "We are doing nothing the same this year. We are running a new offense, defense, and we are not even going to warm up the same."
And the players who have gone through the summer workouts to prepare for the upcoming season have welcomed the change.
They have noticed a difference in the new coaching staff and their teammates.
"The enthusiasm that the coaches have brought to the team has really pumped us up," senior linebacker Tyrone Davis Jr. said. "We are really excited about the season."
Wright faces the challenge of turning around a Forest Park program that hasn't had a winning season since 2000, and hasn't made the playoffs since 1996, into a competitive team.
It is a tall order for a coach who has no varsity head coaching experience. Until last season, Wright spent most of his coaching in the youth leagues.
However, he doesn't see it as an obstacle.
"I'm approaching this with the same enthusiasm that I did when I first got into teaching," said Wright, a former police officer. "I went from no teaching experience to being named the school's teacher of the year. I know some people may question my experience, but I know football, and I have assembled an experienced coaching staff."
Wright, who will be entering his sixth year as a teacher at Forest Park, was originally supposed to be a linebacker's coach on Nick Mrvo's staff at the school. Mrvos, who previously served as offensive line coach at Rockdale, was hired in January, but was not offered a teaching contract near the end of last school year because of budget cutbacks in the county.
He was informed of the move the first week of spring football practice.
Wright said he applied for the job only after he garnered some support from players, parents and the community. He said he coached many of the players in the youth leagues.
"I know there were some naysayers who questioned my coaching experience," said Wright, a former linebacker on Clark Atlanta University's 1991 conference championship team. "It was a long hard process. I've gathered me a league of extraordinary coaches and surrounded myself with some gentlemen that know football. Egos can't get in the way. This community is hungry for Forest Park to have a good team.
"At one time, Forest Park was an elite program. We are on a mission to bring the pride back. We are going to work hard everyday to reach that goal of Panther Pride."
Wright allows his coaches to coach, but he also has put his fingerprint on the program. After rain forced a recent workout inside, Wright and his coaches displayed a lot of intensity in a workout in the weight room.
He would occasionally stop the workouts to demonstrate the proper techniques. Wright patrolled the room like a drill sergeant barking out commands and taking role.
"It's about accountability here," Wright said. "These guys have to be responsible."
After the rain let up, he instructed the players to replace the weights back in the right place and players swept and vacuumed the room before heading the practice field.
"It's a new day at Forest Park," Wright said. "We are looking to change the mindset."
And it seems to be working.
"I feel good about 2010," senior defensive back Gary Samuel said. "All the players seem to be on the same page. In the past, there were different clicks on the team. Now, everybody seems to be one."