TRION, Ga. - Small towns have connections with their local high school football teams that go deeper than showing up on Friday nights and cheering. An identity is shared over the generations, and it's not uncommon for a team and its community to mirror one another.
In Trion, an industrial town still recovering from mill closings and cutbacks the past few years, the citizens are giddy with excitement over their Bulldogs two games into the 2012 season. It's not so much that they're 2-0, it's how they've gotten there that has the folks talking.
Ask anyone in town to describe Trion football, and in various ways of saying it, the common word is tough. Some even say the "T" on the helmets stands for toughness. It's no coincidence, then, that the connection between team and town has been slipping in recent seasons.
It's not just the losses -- the high win total since 2003 has been six, and there have been five losing seasons in that time -- it's the style of play that caused the disconnect.
"We've had a few people visit us before practice, and they all say they enjoy the show we're putting on and the way we're bringing back the physicality and toughness," junior lineman Bret Peterson said. "Everyone's excited, it seems."
One of those excited visitors to camp was Dub Williams, who at 94 years old is the only surviving member of Trion's first team in 1933. Williams, wearing his Trion Bulldogs T-shirt and cap, talked to the team before Wednesday's practice. Not surprisingly, he talked of toughness, how he remembers practicing in the street and beating rivals such as Summerville (now Chattooga) and Lee (now Gordon Lee).
One by one the players looked Williams in the eye and shook hands with him. They even presented him with the game ball from last Friday's 31-6 win over LaFayette, which happened to be the 500th victory in program history. The moment was the latest sign that things are getting back to normal in Trion.
"It's kind of been like a rebirth," said first-year head coach Justin Brown, a Trion graduate who understands what the team means to the town. "For whatever reason there was a lot of negativity the last couple of years, and this year has been like night and day different, really amazing. The people I've talked to say they just enjoy watching us play football. It's not the wins -- it's the way we're playing."
Brown made two major changes to get the program back to its physical roots. He brought back the wing-T offense and he brought in a former rival, former Gordon Lee player and coach Josh Groce, to be the defensive coordinator.
The key on both sides of the ball, however, is the line play and the four players who start on each side. Those four -- seniors Eman Wooten and Cody Brown and juniors Daulton Hegwood and Peterson -- give the Bulldogs a physical advantage against most any team they have or will play this year. The size is obvious -- "We look good getting off the bus," Brown jokes -- as Wooten and Hegwood go 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, Peterson is 6-3, 290 and Brown is 6-4, 240.
It's the effort that's gone into preparing to play nonstop for four quarters that's really made the difference, according to Brown.
"Each of them made every single workout this summer," he said. "Linemen hate to run, but they've each paid the price in practice. The biggest thing, though, is the total mental change they've undergone to prepare to play the whole game. Other teams get to sit their linemen down when they come off the field and let them rest and coach them up. We don't get that chance, but they've prepared for it."
In wins over Armuchee and LaFayette, the Bulldogs have rushed for nearly 600 yards while at the same time not allowing an offensive touchdown against them. The early success is justification for laying it on the line this summer.
"When you're out running in 105-degree heat, you're not doing it for yourself," Hegwood said. "You're doing it for your team and your teammates, and it brings a team closer to work through the pain together. I don't know what happened last year, but we had too many people playing for themselves instead of Trion. That's not the case this year."
Brown knew early on that this season would be different. Late in the game against Armuchee, with his team up four touchdowns, the first-year coach looked over during a stop in play and noticed opposing players bent over. Brown smiled when he turned his gaze to his team.
"I look at our guys and they are out there bouncing on their feet, ready for more," he said. "We've worn two larger [classification] teams out and we've physically taken over both games at the line of scrimmage. It's a great thing to see."
And, of course, Brown is not the only person noticing. An elderly lady approached him recently as he was walking down the street and told the coach how proud she was of the way the team was playing.
"To be from here and to see what's happening," Brown said, pausing to recall the moment, "it's very exciting."