CALHOUN, Ga. It seems a bit silly now, all this talk of the decline of the Calhoun High School football program. A few months ago, however, the discussion wasn't just wishful thinking among the envious in Georgia.
The Yellow Jackets were sitting at home a year ago trying to make sense of an awful playoff exit in which they committed numerous turnovers and were physically bullied at Benedictine. The quarterfinal loss came after the five previous seasons had ended in the Georgia Dome fighting for the Class AA state championship.
Fueling the talk even more was GHSA reclassification. Calhoun would now compete in Class AAA, where the number of quality teams would increase. There were rumblings that coach Hal Lamb, the architect of the dynasty, was mulling retirement. In June, allegations of a post-prom sexual assault involving three Calhoun athletes, two of them football players, became national news and cast an unflattering light on what has been a model program.
All of the above helped mold the 2014 15-0 state champions, who cemented their place in Calhoun history with a stirring 27-20 win Friday over top-ranked Washington County. The end result of the offseason: The team got mad.
It wasn't really an "us-against-the-world" attitude that drove the players in grueling offseason workouts. It was more about earning self-respect. If this group of Yellow Jackets fell short of their goal, it wouldn't be because a team was more physical then they were.
As a Calhoun assistant coach was overheard saying amid the massive celebration in the Georgia Dome, "If there's one thing this team does, it's hit. Things change in football when you get hit, and I've never seen a group that likes to hit like this one."
It was the difference Friday against a Washington County team averaging more than 50 points per game and one that features the electric A.J. Gray, a player with more than 4,000 total yards and 50 touchdowns. It carried Calhoun in some not-so-pretty offensive outings, like the 19-17 quarterfinal escape over Elbert County or when Dalton and Ringgold led games at halftime in the regular season.
"It didn't matter what anyone else thought, because we had worked too hard not to win," junior linebacker Jireh Wilson said Friday night. "We were not going to have this season end like last year."
Like any coach, Lamb always talks glowingly of his seniors, but the 22 who will graduate this year earned a special place with the veteran coach, not so much for their talent but because they weren't going to let a lack of star power keep them from greatness.
"That's what I love about this senior group," Lamb said. "We've had more talented classes, but I've never had a group that has gotten the most out of what they had to give. It's a very special group."
Those seniors ended with a 55-3 record and two state titles, though few of them will play a game beyond this level. They are guys such as defenders Austin Bennett, the team's leading tackler, Tristan Fuller, Will Conley and Dustyn Harris, players whose effort rubbed off on teammates.
Even in the glory of becoming a state championship quarterback, rising star Kaelen Riley's first thoughts postgame Friday were about the seniors.
"There was no way we were going to let our seniors down," the junior said. "I love those guys and they deserve this."
As do all the Jackets. And, by the way, with players such as Riley, Wilson, Olico Dennis, Jack DeFoor, Blaine Anderson and future Auburn Tiger Landon Rice returning, the Calhoun dynasty isn't going anywhere.
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.