Photo by Derrick Mahone
Lovejoy players Travis Custis (left) and A.J. Jackson have helped put the Wildcats and Clayton County football on the radar state-wide with their appearance in last season’s state championship game.
When Al Hughes made his way to the podium at the recent Clayton County football media day, the Lovejoy coach proudly proclaimed that football in the county has rebounded.
Hughes should know.
Led by Lovejoy’s appearance in the Class AAAA title game last season, many have taken notice of the quality of football in the county.
Like much of the academic side of the Clayton County School System, coaches say there is a misconception about football in the county.
“A lot of times we are viewed as the stepchild of football in metro Atlanta,” Drew coach Jarrett Laws said. “I think the misconception starts from the academic standpoint when we lost our accreditation. That seemed to make people think that we are inferior. But what people fail to understand is that the loss of accreditation had nothing to do with the kids in the classroom.
“However, it seemed to translate over to the football field, as if we've had a subpar brand of football.”
Having Lovejoy make a serious run at the state title is a start in repairing that reputation.
The Wildcats appearance in the title game at the Georgia Dome was the first time that a county team has played for a championship since Mount Zion in 1999. Clayton County’s last state title came in 1987 by Morrow.
Since that time, there have been playoff appearances, but nothing of note.
“With schools like Lovejoy playing in the state championship game, and several playoff teams from the county, it’s getting more and more respect,” Jonesboro coach Tim Floyd said. “It’s still not at the point where I think it should be. I think this year if we can get more teams to have a little more success in the playoffs that would be a great step for the county.”
Lovejoy linebacker Zane Fields said the talent that the caliber of teams that they played in the county was equally as impressive as the ones the Wildcats beat in the playoffs.
“The only difference is that those teams had more tradition,” Fields said. “Talent-wise, there was no difference. They just had more support.”
To show the strength of football in the county, Hughes says that the team’s 13-6 win over Riverdale was its toughest game, not the 22-7 loss to Tucker in the state finals.
“We came up here into their (Riverdale) place, and they showed up with a chip on their shoulder,” Hughes said. “They wanted it. They wanted to beat us and they almost did. And you can see the kind of program they’re starting to build there. There’s nothing wrong with the quality here in Clayton.”
But until teams continue to perform well in the playoffs, the county will suffer from an image problem.
Floyd says times are changing because of the high number of high profile players in the area.
Both Lovejoy and Jonesboro did well in a couple national passing league tournaments, and they each have some highly recruited players.
“Now, when we go places, people know who our players are,” Floyd said. “When Cameron Sutton walks in, you hear the whispers. Or when Taurean [Ferguson] comes in, ‘That's the kid that's going to Vanderbilt.’
“I see faces. It used to be kind of snickers when Jonesboro would walk into different 7-on-7s. But now it’s like, ‘Okay, they’re Jonesboro. They’re doing a good job.’ Once, we walked in and somebody yelled out, ‘There’s goes sorry Jonesboro.’ But now it’s a lot different.”