David Cunningham sits halfway up the steep rows of cold concrete and peers at the barren field below where young men he has come to love as his own knock each other senseless.
Here he is, a 41-year-old retired Army officer from Fountain Inn, S.C., who, 10 years ago, didn't know T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School existed. No real ties yet, he is probably the most dedicated fan among of a sparse group of supporters.
Perplexing, because there are 40 years of Josey history and alumni and, now, there is a Georgia High School Association Class AAA Championship for them to embrace.
Perplexing, for there is a team with hunger and drive to become a real Georgia football power and, amazing even to themselves, there will be more talent this season to help satisfy their football cravings.
Already, they taste a second ring. That's what makes it so difficult to understand.
Why aren't more David Cunninghams out there?
"You think there would be people helping out these kids more and showing they appreciate what they did," says Cunningham, vice president of the Josey booster club. "You wonder why there has been so little recognition of what these young men accomplished."
THE ANNUAL GREEN and Gold scrimmage draws to its conclusion on a breezy late August evening. Conversation among a handful of the 70 or so fans at White Road Stadium shifts from reliving what they saw on the field - like the slick moves by all-state senior defensive back Armark Tolbert, who tries his hand at quarterback this season - to what they didn't see.
Maybe they figured they'd see a scoreboard sign when they came out for the first time since Josey defeated Cedar Shoals, 13-6, for the school's first state championship and the first in Augusta since Laney won the GIA title in 1966. They thought, maybe, the team's locker room would have received a much-needed facelift. Something. Anything.
"You'd think you'd see something that says we are state champions," says Felix Curry, a Midland Valley graduate who coaches Josey's defensive backs. "Yeah, this is probably the greatest collection of talent I've ever been around, but they won on more than talent. They put a lot of time and effort to get there, and there's nothing here to commemorate that. I think we all expected something different."
Cunningham and two fathers - TBo Tolbert, Armark's and Georgia Tech freshman Troy Tolbert's dad, and Jesse Drew, the father of former Josey lineman Brian Drew, who expects to walk on as a freshman this year at Georgia Southern - have a championship sign for the scoreboard in the works.
THE HEAD COACH arrived at Josey in 1992, and turned a perennial loser into a contender the following season, a powerhouse in the making the next year, and a champion the next. Those at Josey say if anyone deserves to feel slighted, it is John Starr.
Yet, he can shrug it off.
He wishes the players were reaping championship benefits. Patches for the players' jackets would be nice. A piece of equipment for the weight room. Something, perhaps, for his dedicated coaches - a big screen TV to break down game films on would be sweet. But his issue is the disregard for Josey statewide. He's heard the whispers, at all-star games and coaching clinics. And it hurts.
"We didn't even have a player good enough for them to start the Georgia-Florida game," Starr says. "We won a title, totally undisputed, and we don't get the respect other team's get."
He loves to talk shop and the face comes to life when he shares a football tale. But he'll generally take the Fifth when anything negative surfaces.
But this is different.
"They say we're undisciplined with bad attitudes," he continues. "Guys at the (Georgia-Florida) game were saying stuff, like we won on luck. I overheard one assistant coach telling another how he couldn't understand how Josey won. They said they don't know how to behave. They said we have a whole lot of talent, but not a lot of coaching. I believe teams take on the personality of their coach, so that was disrespect to me."
"It's a stereotype," says Cunningham "I was in the barber shop at Fort Gordon the day of a game, and I was telling some of the guys about Josey. They said you'd better not go there, unless you want your tires stolen, or wanna get shot."
THE GEORGIA-FLORIDA game left the Josey coaches and supporters who made the trip to Daytona Beach, Fla., feeling bitter.
The quarterback, the heart and soul of last year's champions, took his experience very hard. What should have been a moment to forever tuck away warmly in his heart, turned out to be the rudest slap of all.
"I figured I deserved a chance to play, you're selected to an all-star game, and you should play," says George Brown, now a freshman season at Middle Georgia, who was named to replace Southwest DeKalb star Quincy Carter. At the last minute, Carter pulled out of the game and his commitment to Georgia Tech when he signed a pro baseball contract.
"George was number one in the (GACA) North-South (all-star) game, they take him to the Georgia-Florida game and he gets in for two plays," says assistant coach Rufus Hankerson. "TWOPLAYS. That's a slap in the face to Josey, very much so, a big slap in the face. People in south Georgia don't respect Augusta football, but I think it's more than that. I took it very personally."
For the coaches, the reasons are not the issue, whatever those reasons may be.
"It's upsetting because no one on the outside understands what we're about," Starr says. "We show our kids we care about them more than just as football players. Like last year, Hank was such a mentor for George. George had a lot of things to deal with that most young men his age can't handle. Hank pulled him through it. He's the only reason why George kept straight. The kids know we'll do anything for them. This is their family. For some of them, it's the only family they've got."
AS MANY AS SIX Josey seniors this season will graduate next spring - signed, sealed and delivered to play major college football next year.
Tolbert and fellow defensive back Deon Grant headline the list - both are ranked among the nation's best at their position. There's 6-foot-6 lineman Shaun Williams who, like Grant, is an excellent student. He's already been offered by two SEC schools. There's John Fielding, a DB who often gets lost in the shadows of Grant and Tolbert, but who also has been promised SEC offers. Next year, and probably the year after that, Starr figures there will be even more.
"It's scary, but this team is even better," Starr laughs.
THERE WAS A SENSE of added pressure when Josey hit the field for the first time as champions, under the stadium lights at midnight, July 29. For the first two weeks, the pressure to prove so many people wrong was taking its toll.
"It wasn't great around here," says Starr. "It was very intense, like a machine. We had some great practices. But we had gotten away from what got us here. We had to get back to that. Not being so tight. Caring about each other, being a family. We needed to get back to having fun, and that's what we did."
Business as usual.
"It was a little tight, I think, because we know we have to live up to that talent and prove something. I guess there's a desire to prove people wrong, but it's not pressure anymore. I guess that's the driving force this year. We gotta get that respect, citywide and statewide. But we know who we are. We know we've got a championship, and they can't take that away from us."
CUNNINGHAM WILL SCALE the precipitous steps many times this year to take his usual seat in the press box before the microphone. "Fans, you're watching the best football in the state of Georgia," is one of his favorite P.A. announcements during home games.
From the catbird seat point, he motions toward 75 young men in Kelly green and gold, and firmly asserts "This is the real Georgia Power. They have to use the negatives and the adversity as a stepping stone. The coaches are always telling them not to look at what didn't happen or the what they didn't get. You've got to look at what you have done, and what you do have. ..."
"Each other. And the best football team in the state of Georgia."
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