Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers.
HAMPTON — This is what sports is all about —pure and simple.
Emmanuel Clark, Kaziah Hall, Josh Lowery, Kolby and Jamonne Williams, Meshael Custis.
These may be names that you’ll hear about over the next four or five years as you continue to track high school sports in the Southern Crescent.
Perhaps some of these names you’ll hear being bandied about by sports writers such as myself as Georgia’s next D-1 prospect. It’s not even out of the question that one day, 10 years or so from now, a couple of these names may even flash across your television screen during ESPN’s coverage of the NFL Draft.
By then, they will shed the label of “amateur” athlete and be seen as professionals in every since of the word.
They may move on from deciding on which scholarship to take to deciphering their next NFL contract.
And if that happens, I don’t want you to remember how great they turned out to be. Forget about their 40-yard dash times or their vertical jump numbers.
Don’t pine over their high school and collegiate stats. Don’t reminisce about the big hit or ankle-breaking juke move you saw.
Remember their faces — as seventh and eighth-grade kids.
Remember the joy and glee — the smiles and the frantic celebration on the faces of the Rex Mill kids as they celebrated a middle school county championship on the turf of Twelve Oaks Stadium.
Remember coach Rodney Screen, his gray hooded sweat shirt and khaki shorts wet from the traditional victor’s Gatorade bath.
Remember eighth-grade running back Emmanuel Clark looking at the championship trophy, almost in disbelief, yet with the widest grin.
But don’t forget Lovejoy. Remember the Cougars dejection. Heads hung low, teammates and coaches consoling one another. One young man, injured after taking a big hit after a big run, only to sit out one play and run back on the field in the game’s waning moments.
He didn’t care about himself or his pain. He was trying to help his team win.
About 10 feet away from Rex Mill Middle’s jubilation, he broke down a bit, a few tears flowing.
Remember Lovejoy Middle’s head coach Brandon Braine who hurriedly grabbed the second place trophy, almost as an after thought.
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate it. But right now, his hurting kids were more important.
Do you remember what it felt like just to play a game you loved with all your heart just because you loved it?
To all of you athletes at heart who didn’t get the D-1 scholarship or the big pro contract. To all of you who got hurt on the way to perhaps being great, yet never to play again. If you saw them, you’d say the same thing I’m saying.
Those kids are what football — and all sports — is all about. They laid it all on the line. Not to impress a high school coach or a college scout. It wasn’t for a contract or for more money. It wasn’t even primarily for the trophy.
It was for each other — the team. The coaches. For their moms and dads, family members, classmates and friends who proudly cheered them on.
It was for themselves. Their own passion for a game that is still a game for them.
Nothing beats the pageantry of a big time college football game. Few things rival the intensity of an NFL playoff contest.
But there’s absolutely nothing like watching young kids give their all for coaches who look at them more as sons than athletes.
Hence these sentiments of the Rex Mill coach.
“After this, I’m going to help these guys decide their high school futures, help them develop as players in the weight room,” Screen said after his Rex Mill Middle Yellow Jackets hoisted the county championship trophy.
“I’m just going to help them become better men.”
Gabriel Stovall is a sports writer for the Clayton News Daily/Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.