Photo by Derrick Mahone
Lemuel Fuller was the starting quarterback for the Panthers the last two seasons. He said other than the losing record, he loved his time playing for Forest Park, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2000.
Mike Parris still remembers Tara Stadium packed with Forest Park and Morrow high school football fans that late October night in 1994, and for good reason. Forest Park was 8-0 and ranked No. 4 in the state. Morrow was 7-0 and No. 6.
If there was a bigger game in the state that night, Clayton County didn’t care.
“Our fans really, really got behind us and were really very supportive,” said Parris, who led Forest Park to a 28-7 win.
It’s a stark contrast to what Forest Park football has become.
The Panthers are mired in 11 straight losing seasons. Recently-hired coach Don Williams is the eighth coach in the past 10 seasons. The school has had almost as many principals.
But that’s not the Forest Park some former coaches and players remember.
For Parris, the memory of that compelling game is a vestige of what Forest Park high school football used to be — the community passion, the high-stakes games, the success.
“It was a great place to be,” he said.
Parris came to Forest Park in 1986 as the head baseball coach and a football assistant. He immediately encountered the kind of futility the program has recently endured — the Panthers went 3-37 in four seasons under Tom Van Tone, which included three consecutive 0-10 seasons.
But Forest Park’s fortunes improved swiftly.
Mike Bankston got it started, leading the Panthers to consecutive 7-3 seasons in 1990 and 1991.
When Bankston left, Parris was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, and things really started to take off. Parris made it four consecutive winning seasons by leading Forest Park to 6-4 and 7-3 seasons in 1990 and 1991, respectively. Then came consecutive 11-win seasons, consecutive region titles and a semifinals appearance in 1995.
It helped having Hines Ward — the future Georgia Bulldogs star, Pittsburgh Steelers great and one of the most dynamic high school football players in state history.
But it helped even more having a stable environment.
“It was hard leaving Forest Park,” Parris said. “I had great administration working there and great people helping me. The community was really gung-ho about what we were doing. It was a lot of fun.”
Forest Park football had plenty of fun over the years. It won the Class C state championship in 1951, it’s first year of varsity football, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association. It’s seven region titles are the most of any school in Clayton County. Only North Clayton and Lovejoy have had more players named to all-state teams.
Dexter Hartsfield was one of those standouts. A three-year starter at quarterback and punter from 1981-83, he relished the way the Forest Park community got behind its high school football team.
“Back then, the community was behind us 100 percent,” said Hartsfield, who now lives in Jonesboro. “Alumni helped us with barbecues and car washes to raise money to build the program. Former players would come back from wherever they were at college to watch us play.
“And then the middle school and rec league teams were big, too. That’s because parents would come out when the community is involved. It was a good feeling and used to mean something to us to see our parents going to games, traveling even to Newnan and Griffin to watch us play.”
Bob Smith coached several standout players to come through Forest Park. He was an assistant under Parris from 1994-95. He coached players like Ward, a likely NFL Hall of Famer; Ernest Grant, who played three seasons in the NFL; and Todd Wells, a record-setting quarterback who went to Tennessee State.
After following Parris to Jackson for one season, Smith returned to Forest Park to become head coach from 1997 until 2002. He led the Panthers to their last winning season, a 7-3 campaign in 2000.
“It was a great experience,” Smith said. “I had great kids. Administration was fantastic. We had a lot of big memorable games. We had some great players come through. It was always a pleasure coaching there.”
But Smith said he noticed a change come over Forest Park his last couple of seasons as head coach.
Administrators began to change more frequently. Players at nearby Babb and Forest Park middle schools shunned Forest Park High School for other schools. Even the community support started to wane.
“For quite a few years, everybody was trying to be like Forest Park,” said Smith, who’s now defensive coordinator at Henry County High School. “It just kind of fell apart.”
Indeed, when Smith left in 2002, the program seemed to fall into disarray.
Rod Perrymond thought he could be the one to change that.
When Perrymond became head coach in 2008, he seemed to have the dynamic background needed to spark Forest Park football — a stellar high school career as a running back at Dunwoody; cache as a star recruit for the University of Georgia; and a relationship with Ward, his college roommate at Georgia.
He also had the support of incoming principal Melvin Blocker, whom Perrymond said did “all he could to help me.”
But Perrymond didn’t anticipate all the challenges he encountered. He couldn’t have known Blocker would leave after one year, replaced by Dr. Troy Journigan, who didn’t share Perrymond’s vision for the football program. He couldn’t have envisioned the struggle he endured to get assistant coaches he wanted.
“With the changes the county made and battling administration to get your guys in the building,” Perrymond said, “it’s just an uphill battle.
“They’ve just had so many changes over there, I don’t think they can ever build it up like they want to.”