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Sequatchie County quarterback Ethan Barker breaks past Howard defender Udarius Strawter during their TSSAA first-round playoff football game at Sequatchie County High School in Dunlap, Tenn.
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Howard football coach John Starr talks with officials before their prep football game at East Ridge High School on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in East Ridge, Tenn.
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Mark Wiedmer

Taking a brief break from her job duties in the Howard School of Academics and Technology cafeteria Wednesday morning, Acacia Covington's caring eyes twinkled and her voice filled with a mother's joy as she discussed the football scholarship her youngest child, Tadarius, had just signed with Shorter University in Rome, Ga.

"I'll be smiling all day," she said. "My jaw will probably be sore tonight from all this smiling."

What happened at Howard for 12 of its senior football players on Wednesday should make us all smile with pride. Especially when you consider the state of the Hustlin' Tigers program before coach John Starr arrived on the scene last summer.

Prior to Starr, Howard had gone 5-44 on the gridiron from 2011 to 2015.

To show you the impact that can have on a young person, Covington — who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 311 pounds — said of the percentage of those games he participated in, "I cried after every one of those losses."

But under Starr's tough-love, details-driven approach, Howard not only won five games on the scoreboard and officially finished 4-7 — one win was later forfeited for using an ineligible player — but reached the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The ineligible player was a reserve used late in a win, and when Starr became aware of the issue, he self-reported the infraction to the TSSAA.

And with that success came scholarships for a dozen Tigers, including Covington and his best friend, Udarius Strawter, who have been playing organized football together since they were 4 years old.

"The South Chattanooga Cowboys," recalled the 6-5, 315-pound Strawter of those earlier times. "We played right out there on Howard's field."

Added Covington, "We made it to the Pee Wee Super Bowl a couple of times, but we lost."

The Division II Shorter Hawks lost all 11 games they played last fall, including a 66-0 defeat at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Finley Stadium to open the season. So the additions of Strawter — whose older brother Ulysses plays cornerback for Wofford — and Covington should certainly help.

"I didn't want to go to college by myself," Covington said. "It means a lot to get to go to college with someone I've known all my life."

Added Strawter, who expects to room with Covington at Shorter, "I've always thought we'd play together forever."

What they weren't sure of until Starr came along was whether they'd have a football team to play on this past season at Howard.

"We didn't even have spring practice," Strawter said.

Added Covington: "There were only seven or eight of us certain to come back. We were worried we wouldn't have a team."

Instead, the Hustlin' Tigers not only had a team, but won four of their final six games. And with those wins and that improved play came interest from college coaches the region over, everyone from Football Bowl Subdivision programs such as Middle Tennessee State, to Football Championship Subdivision schools such as Austin Peay, East Tennessee State and UTC, to Division II programs such as Shorter, to Division III schools such as Hiram College, to NAIA programs such as Bluefield College, plus a number of junior colleges.

"Coach Starr and his staff have really turned the program around and the young men's attitudes around about doing the right thing both on the field and in the classroom," said Strawter's father, Ulysses.

Said Tadarius's father Scovia, who graduated from Howard but never got to play football because of academics: "Having Coach Starr come in was a big change. It made a man out of (Tadarius). I wish he could have had Coach Starr for three or four years."

But having him for one year earned Vincent Bowling, Juwan Gamble, Kedarrius Phinazee and Ardarius Walker scholarships to Bluefield. Umar Muhammad, Cam Thomas and Jacques Yarbrough signed with Hiram. Anthony Cal, Jwun Hill and Calvin Johnson will play for Arkansas Baptist Junior College next season and, of course, Strawter and Covington will head to Shorter.

And most of them, thankfully, seem to understand that the most important thing they can do with those scholarships is turn them into degrees.

"What I really liked about Hiram is that they graduate over 90 percent of their athletes," Muhammad said on Wednesday evening.

Said Tadarius Covington of Shorter: "A lot of programs showed us fake love. What they really wanted was for us to walk on. But this felt real. I feel like Shorter will get me ready for the real world."

Added Udarius Strawter: "Going to college is going to help me find something I want to do for the rest of my life, something that will help me be financially stable."

Howard principal Chris Earl, who played football at UTC, sees a trickle-down bonus for his entire student body.

"These kids can set a tone and climate for the whole school," he said. "This shows the importance of academics, because if you don't have good academics you can't go to college and play sports or do anything else. Strong academics is the key to everything."

For 12 Hustlin' Tigers. their academic and athletic achievements now have them headed to college and their parents filled with pride.

"I just want them to get a good education," said Scovia Covington. "I just want them all to do better than I did."

If that doesn't make you smile until your jaw is sore, or possibly bring tears of joy to your eyes, what will?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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