Photo by Derrick Mahone
With six starters returning on offense and five on defense, first-year Forest Park coach Don Williams looks to put the Panthers back on the winning track this season.
Forest Park football coach Don Williams stared down one of his wide receivers after a perfectly thrown ball bobbled off his hands and fell to the ground.
“Did you touch it?” Williams asked. “You owe me 20.”
The young receiver was already on the ground doing his second pushup by the time the words were coming out of Williams’ mouth.
Williams whirled around, grabbed quarterback Ervin Balfour and schooled him on his five-step drop technique.
“I need to hear you count the steps,” he said.
“Command the huddle!” he said to one of Balfour’s challengers at the quarterback spot. “There’s a difference between being loud and being in charge.”
These are the sounds of instruction. Of rebuilding. These are the sounds of what Williams believes is a new beginning for Forest Park football.
“We’ve got a great, great group of young men out here,” Williams said. “We feel like these guys haven’t been getting a fair shake in their high school careers and we are excited about working to change that.”
Excitement has not been a word many would associate with Forest Park football over the past 12 years. That’s because winning hasn’t been one, either. To say that the Panthers have struggled during that time would be considered by some as the greatest of understatements.
Williams is inheriting a program that has 11 consecutive losing seasons, including two winless seasons (2004 and ’06), has not won more than three games since a 7-3 campaign in 2000 and hasn’t had a head coach stay longer than two consecutive seasons since Bob Smith’s tenure from 1997-2002.
Their lone victory last season was a 34-6 win over Morrow — arguably the only team in the Southern Crescent area who can rival the Panthers’ gridiron futility.
All of this isn’t lost on Williams, who said that the key to bringing success back to the school that once helped groom former Pittsburgh Steelers all-pro Hines Ward goes deeper than just wins and losses.
“Right now, it’s all about family with us,” said Williams, who also coached the Forest Park wrestling team to its first area title last season. “Every day before we break the huddle it’s, ‘1-2-3 family.’ We have to be about doing this thing together. It doesn’t matter what defense or offense we run. If we aren’t together, it’s not going to work.”
About that offense.
While many high school teams are participating in 7-on-7 passing leagues to fine tune their schemes, Williams has worked all spring and will be working through the entire summer to install a West Coast-style offensive attack.
“I want all 29 days I’ve got through this summer to just work with our guys and put our offense in,” Williams said.
When asked if such an offensive scheme with multiple variations and high dependency on timing patterns would be too difficult for high school kids to learn and properly execute, Williams called for some reinforcement from Balfour and running back/cornerback Jamian Scott.
“I’ve been here for four years and this is the most comfortable I’ve been with an offense,” Balfour said. “It’s faster and easier to make reads and adjustments, and right now our whole team gets it and we’re really starting to click.”
But even more than scheme, Scott said Williams is stressing excellence and execution between the ears as much as between the hashes.
“He’s just instilling a different attitude and mindset here,” Scott said. “He’s not taking as much from players as maybe other coaches did. If you miss practice, you don’t dress. He’s teaching us what it means to be successful as men before players.”
As for turning things around, as far as Scott is concerned, the timetable is now.
“We’re seniors,” he said. “We want to help him change this thing around immediately.”
Balfour says he’s so amped to play, he wishes he didn’t have to wait for the fall.
“I’m ready for our first game now,” he said.
Other samples of this newfound enthusiasm were easily seen even as 39 players practiced in shorts, T-shirts and helmets. On one particular play as the No. 1 defense and offense scrimmaged, a receiver went up to catch a pass from Balfour, and was promptly detached from the ball by a jarring blow from a defensive back.
Only problem was, it was supposed to be two-hand touch.
“These guys are hungry,” Williams said. “We’re tired of people laughing at us. We’re changing the mentality of the athletes and the school around here.”
Scott said he, too, wants to make it so people start thinking twice about the way Forest Park football is perceived.
“We’re sick of going 1-9, 2-8 and 3-10,” Scott said. Though they’ve never gone 3-10, his point was clear: “We’re tired of people saying they want to schedule us for their homecoming game.”
To be sure, the Panthers won’t be trotting out the kind of athletes that attract college scouts to practices. Nevertheless, Williams said his scrappy bunch is positioning themselves to shock the world — or at least the Southern Crescent.
“What you’re going to see out there this year is a bunch of overacheivers,” Williams said. “I mean, you can see we don’t have any fast 40 times or 6-[foot-]6 athletes out there, but that’s not all it takes to win. You’re going to see a big difference in Forest Park football this year.”