Brainerd football coach Stanley Jackson dressed 27 players for the Panthers' Oct. 13 game at Red Bank, and a fourth of those were freshmen, three of them in starting roles.
That's a danger sign in Class 4A football.
"If would love it if we weren't in a position where those freshmen had to play -- if I was in a position where I can play those freshmen [only] if I want," Jackson said.
He didn't want his wants to be misconstrued.
"I want to send a message that Coach Jackson is going to play talent and if you're good enough, even as a freshman, you will get the opportunity to play right away," he said.
It doesn't bother Calvin Davenport III to be a freshman who's starting. He might have regardless of numbers.
"I expected game time but I didn't know I would start," the running back said. "It is a great experience. I feel I'm improving my game."
He's improving it the hard way, learning on the field in situations that decide wins and losses, something any coach would prefer to avoid.
"If you have a kid [who's been in the program] a while, their football IQ gets higher. They understand the situations and where they are on the field," Jackson said. "These freshmen were already pretty good athletes. The thing about our kids is that they don't come up in programs [Dalewood, Orchard Knob, East Lake] that do what we're doing [schematically], and you have to reteach some things that have been taught. Even in the NFL a first-round draft pick, you have to put in the work with them because you want them to do it your way."
Davenport and fellow freshman starters Caleb Stewart, a cornerback, and Marcus McMillan, an outside linebacker, have tried to adapt as quickly as they could.
"Playing football comes naturally to me," Davenport said. "It's hard on a strength level, but it's a good experience. You have to pay attention and do what they ask you to do in practice."
These freshmen have fit in for that reason, said senior Maleek Rooks, who didn't get to start as a freshman.
"They have contributed a lot," he said. "They came with talent and some muscle. Every ninth-grader has his moments, but the majority of the time they listen."
What bothers Jackson and Rooks is the number of good athletes at Brainerd who don't play football.
"There's talent everywhere [in the school]. You walk around and you'll see a lot of big guys, some skill guys," Rooks said. "Some of them don't play because of their grades. Some of them are small, some of them are overweight and some of them are scared of work or of getting hurt, and some just don't have that athletic mentality. The 27 we have worked hard to get to dress out, but we still need people that will come out and work and love to be out here."
Jackson, who continues to recruit the halls, went so far as to ask school principal Charles "Bubba" Joynes for an opportunity to address all the male members of the student body last spring.
"I spoke to them; Mr. Joynes spoke to them," Jackson said. "There are at least 100 kids that could help this football team."
He picked up 20 or 30, "but the discipline of training, getting to practice on time is totally different," the coach said. "Not a whole lot is required to hang out on the block. Football takes a lot of time and discipline."
He wants to change the mindset at Brainerd.
"Today's kid is the type kid that deals with a lot of entitlement. I think I need more incentives," he said. "I have to put more candy in the bag. Like at Halloween; most kids tell you they're not going door to door for anything. But they'll walk around in a crazy outfit door to door if they know they're going to get candy out of it.
He knows that one way to accomplish his goal is to re-establish the program within the community, saying that people think they know what's going on when they don't.
"That's the backbone," Jackson said. "The exterior part is making the playoffs. That tilts the scales, and getting there says to the community that we're headed in the right direction. With the handful of kids I have, that's a win for us."
With community involvement he thinks he could address some of the team's physical needs, from renovating a locker room that has gone virtually untouched since the school was built to upgrading the weight room and playing equipment.
"We need helmets and shoulder pads," Jackson said. " One reason we hit the weights so hard is because I worry every week about a kid getting hurt because his equipment didn't hold up. There's a lot of things we don't have. The only thing we got this year was footballs, and the only reason we have those is because some friends of [assistant] Coach [Phillip] Condra donated some balls last year and we saved them.
"Everything we have is valuable to us."
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...