I overheard a conversation of several seventh and eighth graders discussing where they wanted to go to high school.
Some said Jonesboro, Lovejoy, Riverdale. Others started throwing around schools outside of Clayton County.
South Atlanta, Creekside, Banneker. None of the students uttered the words “Forest Park” or “Morrow.”
Why was that important? Because some of these kids were students — and football players — at Forest Park Middle, Babb Middle and Morrow Middle schools.
Each of these schools are in close proximity of the two Clayton County high school football programs that have recently struggled the most and longest — Forest Park High School and Morrow High School.
The futility has been well documented. Morrow has had 13 straight losing seasons and Forest Park has had 12. Both programs were once proud banner carriers of Clayton County football success.
Forest Park boasts arguably the county’s greatest, most decorated player in former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. Morrow is the last Clayton school to hoist a state championship trophy.
That was back in 1987 during Bud Theodocion’s last year as coach. The Andre Hastings-led Mustangs helped Theodocion go out on top, beating Effingham County 21-0 in the state final.
Those times seem like eons ago. And the game of football has changed drastically on the high school level since then.
With schools engaging in winter conditioning, spring football and summer passing leagues, high school football has, in many ways, begun to mirror the way college programs do it.
And one thing that keeps many college football juggernauts rolling is their dependence on at least one pipeline state.
The pipeline state is a place where a continuous stream of talent flows from. Pipeline recruiting states are especially key for the schools in the northern and midwest schools that are not blessed with talent in their own backyards like such states as Texas, California, Florida and Georgia.
Schools that succeed know that they have to do well consistently recruiting top players from key areas. Their pipeline must be strong.
Obviously high school football programs don’t — or shouldn’t — recruit. But peer into any successful high school football program in the area, and you’ll see a connection between the current talent on the field and the middle school across the street.
I recently saw the last few plays of the Lovejoy-Mundy’s Mill Middle school game at Twelve Oaks Stadium while taking in a Lovejoy High School practice. What struck me is every coach on the Lovejoy practice field was concerned with what was happening with the middle school team next door.
“Did we win?” Coaches were wondering as the buzzer sounded, signifying a 14-8 Mundy’s Mill Middle School win.
The Lovejoy coaches seemed to realize that what happened on the middle school level could eventually affect what happens on the high school level.
When you’re a consistent winner like Lovejoy and Jonesboro, it takes a lot of guess work out of where many of your up and coming middle school ballers will take their talents for high school.
Or when you’re the former coach of a successful middle school football program like Rex Mill Middle and move to the high school ranks, a la Mount Zion’s first-year coach Ervin Starr, you may have a chance at being boosted by outcoming players who want to play with a coach he’s familiar with.
Either way, high school coaches know that a program is not built by transfers alone. In order to establish a high school winner you need a middle school feeder.
Forest Park and Morrow have new, fresh faces pacing their sidelines. The Panthers’ Don Williams has instilled a new positive mentality that has helped Forest Park players start to see the glass half full for maybe the first time.
Larry Foster, a former state title winning coach in talent-rich Florida, has brought a hunger to win and win big back to the Mustangs.
But at some point, all of the past pedigree, rah-rah speeches and X’s and O’s in the world won’t bring stability to floundering programs.
The secret to long term success for hurting teams like Forest Park and Morrow is really no secret at all.
Almost as important as winning the next game, Foster and Williams must find ways to convince the middle school stars from across the street that they don’t have to leave the county — or the neighborhood — to be successful at the next level.
After all, before Hines Ward blazed a trail through Forest Park High School, he first went to Babb.