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STOVALL: We can learn a lesson in support and respect from Southern Crescent athletes

Something is happening in Southern Crescent sports.

Something that goes beyond wins and losses. Something that transcends scoreboard results and trophy case additions.

Something even bigger than the excitement that has come with the recent influx of more top shelf high school athletic talent in this area.

It’s bigger than Eagle’s Landing football’s best-season-ever playoff run. It’s bigger than Jonesboro basketball’s state championship.

But maybe this something started innocently during an early regular season football game between the two schools back in September 2013. In the middle of the field. On their knees. In a simple prayer.

To be clear, no I’m not a religious fanatic that says that prayer and God is the reason why Eagle’s Landing football was so successful and Jonesboro basketball is firmly established as one of the best programs in the state — and the best, this season, in Class AAAA.

In fact, the prayer between the two schools’ football teams before their football game on a crisp early autumn evening probably did absolutely nothing to directly impact the play on the field for those two teams.

That Fellowship of Christian Athletes sponsored football event, nor all of the organization’s successive interactions with those two schools — as well as other Southern Crescent schools such as Dutchtown, Henry County High and Lovejoy — doubtfully had anything to do with any uptick in athletic performance during this school year.

What it undoubtedly did impact, however, are the players themselves.

Or as South Metro Atlanta FCA president Mike Roby calls them, young men.

“Whether with the football teams, or the Jonesboro basketball team, we were adamant in telling these guys that nothing that we’re going to do here is going to make anybody a better basketball player, or a better football player,” Roby said. “What we’re telling you will hopefully help you become better men. And it’s been great to watch some of them become better for that.”

I’ve always said that life is bigger, and much more than sports. But I can’t think of many other things in life that help young students learn how to handle the ups and downs of life better than team sports.

And if we adults watch closely, we may be able to learn something from them.

In my 2 1/2 years of covering sports in Henry and Clayton counties, I’ve witnessed mostly positive vibes and mutual respect for the student-athletes in each county. But every now and then I’ll hear a disparaging remark about one county from the other. Sometimes I’ll hear stereotypes spill out in the speech of those from either county about the other —nothing I’ve heard has ever been too nasty, but you could definitely tell that there was some divisiveness there.

Many residents of Henry County used to live in Clayton, and vice-versa. Some of them graduated from schools across county lines. So, with a two county area that seems to have so much in common, it’s a shame whenever any kind of divisive statements are made or attitudes are expressed.

What I’ve seen from FCA’s efforts this school year, specifically in public schools in both counties, is not just a willingness to give student-athletes an opportunity to strengthen their faith, but the extending of opportunities for two bordering counties to find an enhanced spirit of camaraderie and mutual respect.

After that FCA Football Classic between Jonesboro and Eagle’s Landing, the Cardinals went on to have a decent season, missing the playoffs by one game. Meanwhile Eagle’s Landing completed the best year of football in school history, going 8-3 with a narrow loss to Mary Persons in the first round of the postseason.

And it took only a brief perusal of my social media pages to see that some of Eagle’s Landing’s biggest supporters came from the Clayton County school.

Fast forward to just last Thursday when the Jonesboro basketball team brought home its first state basketball crown, defeating Columbia in the process — a Columbia team that Eagle’s Landing beat last year in the Class AAAA title game.

Guess which was the Henry County school that was front and center with their support?

Eagle’s Landing.

But that’s not all. Throughout the year, FCA’s presence helped a young Eagle’s Landing football player cope with his mother’s bout with brain cancer. And if you listened to the postgame interviews from Jonesboro after their state title coup, you may have noticed a word that kept coming up.

That word was poise. It was a theme of one of Roby’s messages that he delivered early in the Jonesboro basketball season during one of their character study sessions.

Roby said he was glad to see it stick for the Cardinals at a time when a group of freshman, sophomores and juniors playing on high school basketball’s biggest stage needed it most.

“The team bought into a theme that we believe God laid on us,” Roby said. “Poise. That was probably the biggest thing I saw through teams this year was a maturing process that took place, and more unity.”

Roby agreed that the presence of unity didn’t stop in the Jonesboro locker room.

In addition to a plethora of Henry County schools and athletes who were rooting for the Cardinals last Thursday, one of the coolest shows of support for Jonesboro perhaps came from fellow Clayton County school North Clayton High.

North Clayton — the last basketball team in the county to win a state title — posted a congratulatory message on its own school marquee for the Class AAAA champions.

I’ve seen first hand how the support, respect and camaraderie has boosted across the border during this season of heightened FCA activity in the Southern Crescent. And what’s more, I’ve seen a sense of pride well up in a county which has been dogged — sometimes deservedly, and sometimes not — with a less than flattering reputation.

And while Roby stops short of calling it a revival, he, along with other Southern Crescent coaches from Eagle’s Landing’s Joe Teknipp to Dutchtown’s Johnnie Stafford to Jonesboro’s Dan Maehlman, has seen enough to know that something good is happening in the area.

“It’s unbelievable,” Roby said. “As a guy who graduated from a Clayton County school, it broke my heart when people who first heard of our decision to emphasize this area — especially Clayton County — said that we were wasting our time, and nobody cared.

“But I watched Facebook and Twitter all night during Jonesboro’s championship game, and to see how the communities came together to support those guys, it just represents what we believe God is doing, and what God can do. That He can do things in this area with these kids that people say can’t be done.”

Yes, the wins and championships are nice. But the elevated sense of community is the real prize. And regardless of your faith persuasion, the FCA’s message and impact on Southern Crescent sports teaches us yet another popular lesson.

We’re greater together than we are divided. Chalk up another life lesson taught by Professor Sports.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Henry Daily Herald and Clayton News Daily newspapers. He can be reached at gstovall@henryherald.com. On Twitter? Follow him @GabrielStovall1.