How often do you hear a coach say his football team is like a family? At Ridgeland High School, Mark Mariakis has a unique perspective on the subject this season, and it has nothing to do with how united his team is to get back in the playoffs.
The Panthers this season -- all 130 of them -- are really more than a family; they're a true slice of life.
"To say the least, it's a unique mixture, but the kids are doing great," Mariakis said of a group that includes a female lineman, a Down syndrome kid, a physically handicapped player and sets of twins and triplets.
The team's diversity could be a distraction, but Mariakis prefers to see the positive effects such a group can have on every player.
"We talk to our kids all the time about preparing for life and how you're always going to be dealing with different people, attitudes, color and handicaps," he said. "So you've got to not only be able to get along with them, you have to be able to interact and understand the difference between one person and another and realize, like you, they're just people."
Seth McGee didn't want to be a manager. The sophomore with Down syndrome wanted to be a part of the football team, but when given the choice he made no bones about his intentions.
"Seth wanted to play last year but as a freshman was more worried about school, but last spring he told me wanted to play," Mariakis said. "He wanted to play, so we got a plan together and he's been out here every day. The kids love him and he's just part of them. We can't wait to see him play in a ballgame."
Thank goodness for jersey numbers. Coaches shake their heads if you ask them to tell the Figgures triplets or the McCullough twins apart. The Figgures -- Chauncey, Chris and Caleb -- are on the varsity squad. The sophomores have not tested the coaches' recognition skills yet, but it may be coming.
"The coaches can't tell us apart, though I'm a little taller," Caleb said with a laugh. "It's a heck of a challenge for the coaches, but it's great to be a triplet. We haven't tricked the coaches yet, but we do it to teachers. I might try to trade numbers at one point, maybe as a senior prank."
Said Mariakis: "I know it's coming."
Sophomore Serena Jones had never played organized football until last year, so when she approached her parents about joining the Panthers they were, she said, both surprised and pleased.
"I've always like football and my dad inspired me to play it, because he said I could do anything if I wanted it bad enough," said Jones, who in practice goes against guys who often outweigh her by 100 pounds. "I started playing last year.
"The guys on the team thought I was crazy and my mom was scared I might get hurt, so she came every day until she realized I could take a hit. During spring practice I came home with bruises all the time, but I proved I could handle it."
Jones, who also wrestles and plays tennis, has a simple reason for suiting up and enduring the intense Ridgeland practices.
"Football is my favorite sport, because of the hitting," she said. "My friends think it's pretty cool. Some of them tried to talk me out of it, but they like it now. Practice is kind of rough, but you get used to it."
Mariakis made it clear that if she wanted to play, especially as a lineman, that coaches couldn't ask the other players to back off. No problem.
"I sat down with her dad and told him we treat every kid the same and we don't show favoritism or play soft with them," Mariakis said. "That's what she wanted, and she's held her own. She's not like a kicker or out there playing receiver, she's in the line, and these guys are out there fighting for position, so they can't afford to let up just because she's a girl."
Jones has never missed a practice or workout, and her work rate has caught the eyes of her teammates.
"When we talk about commitment, her name comes up with the guys," Mariakis said. "Here's a kid that odds are will never play on a Friday night, but she's worked as hard as anybody. Her effort has rubbed off on the guys who are going to see their names in the paper."
Colby Liaina was born with a shriveled arm, yet to watch him on the football field is to see a player who isn't concerned with what he can't do. Like Jones and McGee, his effect on the team is quite noticeable.
"At first I was worried Colby might not be able to protect himself, but he's adjusted so well and he comes off the ball as well as anybody," Mariakis said. "He can bench-press and power-clean -- and I at first wondered how does he do that -- but when you're dealt with things like that in life you make adjustments, and that says a lot about the young man. Trust me, the other players have noticed."
The 2014 Panthers are extremely young, with only seven combined junior and senior starters, and with so many 15-and 16-year-olds getting playing time and many more trying to earn it, it's a team yearning for leadership. Mariakis knows the season, which started with a loss Friday at Adairsville, will have rough spots, but he also firmly believes each member of the team will be better off for experiencing the Panthers' great diversity.
Life's lessons, after all, can be learned at any time when you're a teenager.
"We've got all these different people, but the bottom line is it's Ridgeland football and they've all got helmets on and they're all our brothers," Mariakis said. "We hope they will take all that with them into the workforce when they encounter someone who looks different or has a different religion, and they can immediately accept them for who they are."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.