Countdown to kickoff

Monroe players relax in the home dressing room at Hugh Mills Stadium before the start of their game with Americus-Sumter last week. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)

Monroe players relax in the home dressing room at Hugh Mills Stadium before the start of their game with Americus-Sumter last week. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)

ALBANY — The large group of football players walk across the street to Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. It’s three o’clock on Thursday afternoon and Monroe has a game with Americus-Sumter. The kickoff at Hugh Mills Stadium is four hours away. However, that time will disappear quickly.

There’s a lot to do before the game begins.

The first item is the pregame meal. Several local churches serve meals to the four Dougherty County public high schools. Most weeks, Monroe has to board a bus to eat dinner. That won’t be the case today. The players make the short walk across the street.

They enter the church and head to the social hall. Mount Pilgrim members and their culinary arts team have assembled an impressive pregame meal consisting of spaghetti, green beans, salad and a roll. The players sit at the tables.

Assistant coach Jesse Hunt calls the players by grade, starting with the seniors who are served in a single-file line. In about 15 minutes, the team is served. Every player passes the desert table, which has slices of chocolate and pound cake that seems to stretch a mile long.

About 3:25 p.m., church member Loretta Shelton walks around the tables, making sure all the needs are met. There’s very little words spoken by the players.

“All right. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” Shelton shouts.

A chorus of hand-claps breaks out into the room.

About five minutes later, several church members tell the players there is more to eat. Not one gets up for seconds.

“We just want to make sure they get full,” Shelton said.

About 15 minutes later, Monroe coach Charles Truitt thanks the church and its pastor, Walter Ingram, Jr., for their hospitality. He tells them he hates to eat and run but the Tornadoes still have a lot to do.

Giving Out Uniforms

The players head across the street to the field house and into the dressing room. Assistant coaches assemble in the equipment room, where rows of neatly pressed jerseys are folded on racks. Hunt passes out the jerseys and the pants.

Players take their time getting dressed. Most put on their pants and jerseys, then grab their helmets and pads and head to the weight room.

There’s no lights on in the weight room. Players relax here for the next half hour. Senior defensive end Corey Parker lies back on one of the benches. Juniors Shaundrell Oliver and Vonte Miller take a nap on the floor underneath a squat rack.

Freshman wide receiver Denarris Canidate and several other players talk about the opponent — Americus-Sumter.

“We’re just relaxing until the bus gets here,” he said. “We’ve got a good team to play tonight.”

Truitt comes into the room, checks on his players, then heads back into another room.

On the other end, offensive lineman Stannis Collins tries to rest. He closes his eyes and ignores the constant closing of the door as players and coaches go in and out.

“It’s peaceful,” said the sophomore. “It’s good just to sit here and relax.”

Some players pull out the tape and begin taping ankles.

At 4:30 p.m., the first of three buses that will transport the team to Hugh Mills Stadium arrives. At 4:48 p.m., the players begin boarding the bus. Managers load up the water coolers and the remainder of the equipment that will be needed.

Getting ready for the game

At 5:05 p.m., the buses arrive at Hugh Mills Stadium. One by one, the players get off and head down the ramp to the home dressing room. There’s still very little talking.

Inside the dressing room, Truitt gives a brief pregame talk. After he finishes, the players relax for a few minutes. Some read, while some listen to music. It’s here that Truitt encourages his team to focus.

At 5:45 p.m., the first batch of Monroe players take the field. This is mostly special teams players such as long-snappers, kickers and punters.

By 6 o’clock, the rest of the teammates are out on the field. They stretch and do some light conditioning.

Americus-Sumter is at the other end. One Panther player asks Monroe what they are looking at.

Truitt quickly snaps.

“Don’t worry about it. Focus,” he says.

By 6:20 p.m., the Monroe band enters the stadium as well as the first cheerleaders as the players continue warm-ups.

At 6:40 p.m., the players go back into the home dressing room for one last time. Truitt encourages the team to continue focusing.

At 6:53 p.m., the captains walk out on the field before the coin toss. Three minutes later, the rest of the team is out on the field, ready to run through the banner the cheerleaders have made as the band plays the school fight song.

By 6:58 p.m., both teams are on the field, ready to play ball.

The game begins at 7 p.m.