0

KICKOFF 2010: Blazing more trails

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

BACONTON -- If you listen closely, you can hear the heartbeat of Baconton, beating for those kids, the ones everyone said couldn't do it -- the ones who aren't dreaming of going to the Georgia Dome, but just dreaming about being on the field.

It's a different end zone for the Baconton Charter Blazers, one they've reached on their own, a unique kind of pay-dirt that comes once and only once.

Is there anything sweeter than the first time?

That's where the Blazers are going, those rag-tag kids who were thrown together two years ago -- with little more than hope and a community that believed in them -- are about to knock down a door tonight. Crash right through it and run right into history.

Because when Baconton Charter lines up to play Pelham at 8 tonight at the Hornets' house, it won't just be a football game. It will be the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

"It will be history,'' said Blazers coach Glenn Palmer, whose team will play its first varsity football game tonight for Baconton, where the numbers 8/20/2010 will have a meaning all their own.

Even Palmer had to be convinced two years ago when the first whispers of fielding a football team in Baconton started. Palmer, like many, was worried, but he changed his mind when the kids convinced him that -- OK, it might be tough and they might lose a lot in the early going, but "it sure would be fun.''

That was the bare-bones beginning of a program that was born from an idea and little more. The night Baconton decided to give it a try, someone pulled out a hat at a public meeting -- and before they knew it, the folks in Baconton were passing it around the room, filling it up.

They stuffed $500 into that cap that night.

And the dream was born.

The school didn't even own a football when it started, and had to scramble to find a place to play and even a place to store the first pads and helmets.

They took a storage building and turned it into a makeshift weight room that is still known as the "Blue Dungeon." They practiced on the girls softball field and stored equipment in the corner of a shed at the school that was used to store everything else.

But here they are, two years later, storming onto the varsity football field, racing toward the future.

It took donations from a community that fell in love with this team and a commitment from Palmer, his coaches and a school that had already seen success in other sports -- and the kids themselves who were thrown into the fire two years ago. The idea was to play a junior varsity schedule and see if they might grow up into a varsity team.

Graduation is tonight.

They still lift weights in the Blue Dungeon, still practice on the softball field, but they do have their own shed. It's baby steps for Baconton.

Still, in a game where time is measured in 4.4, 40-yard dashes and strength is based on power-lifting and pancake blocks, Baconton has sprinted faster than any stopwatch can measure in just two years.

And this team has lifted an entire community right off its feet.

"I would have to say we are further along than I thought we would be,'' Palmer said. "The support from the community has been incredible, and the kids have come a long way in two years.''

Those donations have help purchase a $2,000 sled, about $2,000 worth of big, strong tackling dummies and another $2,000 for a line shoot for practice, plus all the equipment needed to suit up for the games. There are plans for a new weight room from the money games will generate this season, but Baconton even pays rent. The Blazers don't have a home stadium and rent the Mitchell County Stadium in Camilla, where they played all their junior varsity home games on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Now they're ready for Friday Night Lights.

"In the beginning, I was against (football),'' Palmer said. "I just thought we were good at so many other sports, and that was enough. But the kids wanted it so bad.''

The community jumped on board from the opening kickoff, and it didn't matter what happened on the field. Baconton was there for its football team, bringing unheard of big crowds to JV games.

"When we started we were absolutely horrible, but they packed the place to see us play,'' Baconton defensive coordinator Gabe Council said. "We lost our first game, 35-0, but the crowd was cheering from the minute we took the field until the end of the game. You would have thought we won the game, 35-0.''

Baconton simply didn't have anybody with any real football experience.

"In our first game we played Seminole, and they scored the first three times they touched the ball,'' Palmer said. "It was 21-0 and I was thinking, 'What have I done?' "

But that wasn't the low point. Seminole coach Alan Ingram took it easy on Baconton and played his backups. Palmer said the following week was brutal. Baconton lost to Randolph-Clay, 48-0.

"If there was a low point, that was it,'' Palmer said. "I was down. Then (Pelham coach) Jim Morrell came over to me. He was at the game. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: 'Keep going. Don't let it get you down.' That meant a lot to me.''

The next week, Palmer changed the offense. He had been trying to run the option and just didn't have enough talent, so he simplified the offense and made the most of what he had on the field. Baconton won two of its next five games, and gave Palmer, his kids and the town a memory they will cherish forever.

"I will never forget the first time we won,'' Palmer said. "I didn't think we were going to win a game that first year, and we beat Pelham in the fourth game of the season, 8-6. They took the opening kickoff and scored to lead, 6-0. We didn't score until there was about three minutes left in the game, and we went for two and scored. I was thinking, 'We've still got three minutes left to play.' But we hung on to win."

Palmer then added: "That's my biggest memory. It was so much fun watching those kids jumping up and down and hugging each other after the game. You would have thought we had just won the Super Bowl, and it was just a JV game on a Thursday night.''

Baconton went 2-5 that first season and 3-5 last year, but no one knows what will happen when the Blazers step up to the varsity level.

"It doesn't matter,'' said Zack Faircloth, a senior who plays fullback, halfback and linebacker. "What's important is that we have this team.

That's how we felt in the beginning. No one cared if we won or lost, we just wanted to have a team.

"Even when we lost, we felt good, and when we won that first game and we got that first taste of victory against Pelham it was the best taste I've ever had. We've come a long way in two years. It's going to be a great feeling (tonight) when we walk onto that field. We will be representing the whole school, the whole town of Baconton.''

Faircloth is one of six seniors who make up the core of this team -- six players who have grown up right on that softball field. They believe in each other.

"I think we're all kind of hungry for a winning season this year,'' said J.B. Germany, a senior who plays fullback, halfback and linebacker. "Everyone here is just glad we have a team.''

It shows. The whole school is beaming about the team, and there are 20 cheerleaders who weren't there before. They, too, got a new beginning two years ago when football came to Baconton. Drop by

Midway -- a cafe/convenient store in Baconton -- and all the buzz is about this team, these kids and what tonight means to Baconton.

"I'm getting goosebumps already,'' Palmer said earlier this week. "I'm sure our kids will have some butterflies, but I think they'll settle down and play hard.''

Baconton has a tough schedule early that includes a road game against Class AAAA Lee County in the second week of the season, but the Blazers are playing a non-region schedule that will allow them to play other schools with non-region schedules, and there could be a few

victories this year.

"The biggest difference is they have experience now,'' Palmer said. "There's no replacement for that.''

James Davis leads the way for the Blazers. He has been the star for two years, but he's not only a tough, hard-nosed player who can run --he's unselfish in every way. He blocks as well as he runs, and is the best player on defense. Palmer believes Davis is good enough to play Division I college football at one of the smaller D-I schools.

If he gets a scholarship, it will be just another in a long list of firsts for Baconton, where football has worked. That's the best way to put it. It works here in this small town where baseball is king, and works for all the right reasons.

The best numbers aren't on the scoreboard. They're in the journey. Consider this: 20 of Baconton's 27 football players are participating in just one sport -- the one this town gave them two years ago.

The team is very close. Palmer took all his kids bowling last week so the bond could become even closer, and they recently traveled to hear Bobby Bowden speak at a Fellowship for Christian Athletes function at a church in Pelham. The coaches on this team are hands-on, "I care about you" men who knew from Day 1 how difficult this road would be -- and their smiles are as big as any when they talk about just how far this program has come.

And finally, Baconton has arrived.

"I've told our coaches that we will come back here 20 years from now and sit in the stands and watch Baconton play varsity football,'' Palmer said. "And we will know we're the ones who got this thing going. That will be our accomplishment. We'll never forget it.''

Just like no one will forget tonight.