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Before they were stars

Special photo / The 2008 North Henry Tigers won the fifth annual Frank Ski Bowl and was filled with future Clayton and Henry county high school football stars.

Special photo / The 2008 North Henry Tigers won the fifth annual Frank Ski Bowl and was filled with future Clayton and Henry county high school football stars.

The ex-Marine from outside of Chicago took a group of kids from across the Southern Crescent and built a youth football dynasty. The North Henry Tigers were a perfect 72-0 from 2004-08 and was the first team to not give up a touchdown in winning the Frank Ski Bowl.

Dan Curl did it with uncanny attention to detail but also an undeniable commitment to his players. Friday nights were for Rocky’s Pizza, a high school football game and plenty of swimming and xBox at Curl’s house. Saturday mornings were for IHOP breakfasts and gameday.

Now, Curl’s formers players make up a who’s-who of some of the Southern Crescent’s top senior high school football players. Staff writer Brian Paglia spoke with Curl and a few players about how a run of perfection effected the course of their football careers:

Dan Curl

The native of Springfield, Ill., moved to Georgia in 1985 and coached the North Henry Tigers from 2004-08. Curl was defensive coordinator at Eagle’s Landing Christian for two years before taking this year off.

“Our motto was we were going to play anyone, anytime, anywhere. We got these kids raw from the inner city. They had never been groomed before. We grew a family. I got them into the Lord. They wouldn’t eat a chip before praying. They’d tackle their mom if I told them to. We got that close.

“One time we had an entire practice on how to meet someone. I lined them all up and came up to each one and made sure their posture was good, their shoulders were back, they looked me in the eye and gave a firm handshake.

I didn’t want any lame handshakes.

“I got more out of it than the kids.

I didn’t have a good relationship with my dad. I wanted to be different than my dad was. So I tried to mold them as men. Taught them discipline, manners, attention to detail.”

Alejandro Bennifield

Bennifield is a senior quarterback at Lovejoy. Bennifield played his seventh and eighth grade years with North Henry. Now, Bennifield is one of the top quarterbacks in the area and has committed to Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“We had athletes everywhere. Everyone who played defensive or offensive line was a running back, quarterback or wide receiver on their middle school teams. I played defensive end and tight end, but I played quarterback in middle school.

“It was real intense. [Coach Curl] wanted us to be perfect all the time. Couldn’t have anything less than being perfect on every play. We had to fix it right then and there.

“It affected me a lot. I learned I had to work hard. When I first came to high school I wasn’t athletic. I knew I had to work hard to get in and do stuff right so I could stay in.”

D.J. Curl

Curl is a senior wide receiver and defensive back at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy. Curl is the son of former North Henry coach, Dan Curl, and played throughout the Tigers’ five-year run. Now, Curl is getting interest from Central Florida, Samford, Wofford, UAB and others.

“It’s kind of weird to look back at it now because of how everybody was so much younger and smaller. But everybody knew we had potential at the next level. Even our linemen were starting at skill positions on their high school teams as freshmen.

“It was an awesome bond. Honestly, it sounds corny, but I honestly looked at every single one of them as brothers. I’d do anything for those guys.

“We went through a lot of trials and stuff. Obviously, we never lost a game, but it was more than that. Stuff that people’s families went through. We learned about life. The only difference was the losing factor. None of use was used to losing. ...We bred winners.”

Taurean Ferguson

Ferguson is a senior wide receiver and cornerback at Jonesboro. Ferguson played one year, his eighth grade year, with North Henry. Now, he’s one of the top football and track athletes in the Southern Crescent and is committed to Vanderbilt.

“It was a great experience. I had Division I college players on my team. Practice-wise, everything was competitive. There were no days off. Everybody was willing to work. Everybody played skill positions, but if coach asked us to do something, we’d do it. I never played with a team with so much talent.

“[Coach Curl] was a good mentor. He taught us to stay humble, have high energy, be disciplined, make sure we didn’t mess up our assignments. He wanted everything to be right, everything to be tight and on point. With that, we had fun with it. He didn’t make it a boring practice. He’s a great coach. He loved every single player that he coach. He treated everybody like a son.”

Keyante Green

Green is a senior running back and linebacker at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy. Green played one season, his eighth grade year, with North Henry. Now, he’s one of the top running backs in the state and is committed to Purdue.

“We worked pretty hard. We conditioned every day in practice. We were always fourth-quarter ready. We just kept winning games. We had teams quitting on us in the third quarter because we played too hard. They didn’t want any part of us.

“That team was so good we could have beat a high school. I’m pretty sure we could beat a high school. All of us left that team and started as freshmen in high school. We were a powerhouse team. We based everything on everyone doing their job. We had responsibilities.

“[Coach Curl] is an aggressive coach. He liked for us to work hard. Not only that, he wanted us to do good. He pushed us to the very limits. He always put God first in everything.”

Cortez McDowell

McDowell is a junior wide receiver and safety at Locust Grove. McDowell played offensive tackle and middle linebacker for North Henry throughout the Tigers’ five-year run. Now, he’s the top wide receiver in Henry County. The junior already has scholarship offers from N.C. State and Syracuse.

“That team gave myself and the players something to look forward to every week. We were so close to each other. We’d just go out playing and having fun.

“Playing with that team taught me a lot, gave me more knowledge of the game. I was able to put that final touch in areas I was struggling in. It made me into the player I am today.

“[Coach Dan Curl] pushed players. He always had that comfort of a coach, though. From a coaching standpoint, he just was always there when we needed him.”

“The highlight was winning 72 straight games. We just thought it would never end. We kept wishing we were all together still, that those 72 games wouldn’t end so soon.”

Cameron Sutton

Sutton is senior wide receiver and cornerback at Jonesboro who has committed to Tennessee. Sutton played four years with North Henry from fifth to eighth grade. Now, Sutton is one of the top athletes in the Southern Crescent having played varsity baseball, basketball and football since his freshman year.

“It was great. Overall, we were definitely a God-based, family-based team. We weren’t really much in terms of size. We played with a lot of heart like we do now with our high school teams. We bonded real well.

“Coach Curl was great. He would watch film and have us over to watch film. Practice was intense. But it was to make us better and prepare us for the week.

“Everybody just wanted to win. That was our main mentality — win championships, win games. Coming into Jonesboro, it made me bring that same mentality of winning and going all out and playing every down like it’s your last. I respect [Curl] for that for giving me the confidence in myself.

Where are they now

A list of the 2008 North Henry Tigers and where they are now in high school.

Name, School

Dia Andrews, North Druid Hills

Alejandro Bennfield, Jonesboro/Lovejoy

Boris Burton, Stockbridge/Cedar Grove

Ryan Callahan, Luella

Jordan Collier, Stone Mountain

D.J. Curl, ELCA

Aaron Davis, Luella

Myron Fears, Heritage-Conyers

Taurean Ferguson, Jonesboro

Tremond Gates, Dutchtown

Keyante Green, ELCA

Corey Hall, Stockbridge

Evan Jones, Stockbridge/Stephenson

Cortez McDowell, Locust Grove

Jeff Murphy, Lovejoy

Chandler Rowe, Tucker

Cameron Sutton, Jonesboro

Jarad Turner, Stockbridge*

Charles Valentine, Union Grove

Rico Whitehead, Union Grove*

Myles Willis, Marist

* Doesn't play football anymore