LEESBURG -- They planned this all along.
Even back in the days when no one cared, back when they were nothing more than an afterthought, playing for a program no one seemed to want to think about.
Even then they talked and planned and hoped this day would come.
So when it arrived Wednesday, draped in balloons and covered in red and black, dripping in Lee County pride, right there on center stage in the Lee County gym in front of most of the student body that whooped and hollered and shouted their names, no one wanted to say I told you so.
They were too busy smiling to say it.
But it was there, tucked quietly beneath this celebration, far below all the laughing and hugging and posing for pictures that framed this moment for Lee County football -- a moment for five football players to take one last bow as they all signed national letters-of-intent to accept football scholarships amid friends and family who have all come to believe in this program.
"We talked about this day when we were in the 10th grade,'' said Lee County receiver Sanford Seay, who signed with the University of Georgia. "The team went 0-10 that year, and nobody believed in us. We talked about how when we became seniors, we would be the leaders of the team and how we were going to have a big year and how we were all going to get college scholarships.''
The five leaders, including The Herald's John Reynolds Player of the Year, quarterback Justin Walker, and Seay, who was voted the People's Choice Player of the Year by fans in an online voting contest, stood together at one point.
There they were, Seay, Walker, receiver James Terrell, running back Denzel Eckles and defensive lineman Calvin Johnson, forming an informal bond that was about as impromptu as one of Walker's passes to Seay on the run, a metaphor for the season.
"There's no better way to end it. No better way than to be here signing together. I've been to both kind (of signings), when there's one guy and when there's a group. I'd rather be in a group. That's my family,'' Walker said, pointing to his teammates.
It looked and felt that way Wednesday. They couldn't throw their arms around the moment so they hugged each other instead, embracing how far they had come with a glint in the eye of where they were going.
Walker is going to West Georgia. Eckles is headed for Albany State. Johnson is going to Lane College, and Terrell is off to Southwest Mississippi College.
All of them had monster seasons. Walker set a new state record, throwing for 591 yards against Warner Robins, and completed 250 of 413 passes for 3,331 yards -- the 10th-most in the history of Georgia -- while tossing 39 touchdowns.
Seay caught 68 passes for 1,105 yards and 15 TDs, and Terrell had 59 receptions for 788 yards and 13 touchdowns, and even threw a touchdown pass to Seay. Eckles did a little of everything, catching 54 passes and combining for more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. Johnson didn't throw or catch a pass, but he spent a lot of time in the backfield going after the guys who did. He had 17 tackles for losses, including five sacks.
The group redefined football at Lee County.
Wednesday's ceremony, which just got bigger and bigger and was moved twice until it finally landed in the gym, capped off a memorable season for Lee, which had won only four games in the previous three seasons and had only four winning seasons in the school's history.
These Trojans went 7-4 and remained the No. 1 team in The Herald's Fab 5 Poll throughout the season with a team that turned heads and set records.
"I don't think we've ever had five players sign on the same day before,'' Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio said. "I'm really proud of them. They put in a lot of hard work, and (having five sign) is great for Lee County. Hopefully, we'll have this kind of hoopla every year on signing day. It's created a lot of excitement.''
Seay was recruited by a long list of top schools, and considered Marshall, but once Georgia got into the picture he quickly made up his mind. He is close friends with Mitchell County receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, who is also Georgia bound, and has talked to Thomas County Central defensive end Ray Drew, one of the top recruits in the nation, about their futures with the Bulldogs.
"I liked Marshall, but the opportunity to play at Georgia was just too good,'' Seay said. "We're going to turn it around (after UGA's 6-7 season). It's the Dream Team that we're putting together. I've talked to (Scott-Wesley) and to Drew. We know we can turn it around.''
Eckles was the last Trojan to commit to a school, and he's excited about Albany State.
"My best opportunity is at Albany State, athletically and academically,'' said Eckles, who plans on majoring in computer engineering. "They have a great tradition of winning, and coach (Mike) White is a great coach. I talked to the players about him. He's all about business.''
Terrell is planning on making a name for himself at Southwest Mississippi -- home of Albany State star QB and SIAC MVP Stanley Jennings -- then moving on to a four-year school.
"It's a special day for me, starting my new career at the next level,'' he said. "It's great we are all signing together. It says a lot about the program.''
Johnson was a beast on the defensive line, but he spoke softy with sincerity Wednesday, talking about what the scholarship meant to him.
"It's a big day,'' he said. "It's truly a blessing. I'm going to be one of the first ones in my family to go to college, and that means everything to me. And signing with my teammates ... We talked about this day. We've been planning this day, saying we were going to have a good year as seniors and planning to all sign together.''
It was -- as Walker said -- family.
"It's an achievement for all of us, and it's something I have been working toward for four years,'' he said. "Finally to be here feels great. (All of us signing together) shows what we accomplished at Lee County and this (ceremony) shows the community is finally buying into what coach Fabrizio has been talking about, turning the program around. I knew we would start that this year, and I know they will keep it going. It's going to be amazing.''