Four words, written in large black letters across a dry-erase board, summarized the turnaround Brainerd High School's football program is making.
"No struggle, no story"
After snapping the cap back onto the marker, Panthers coach Tyrus Ward paced in front of the team's meeting room earlier this week and began to explain the meaning of the mantra.
When Ward took over at his alma mater three years ago, he inherited a program that had losing records in eight of the previous nine seasons. Ward began by changing every aspect of the team's approach, using a foundation of work ethic and attention to detail he was convinced would pay off on the field.
But the rebuilding project has taken longer than he originally hoped, with injuries decimating last year's roster and leading to a 1-9 finish in which Brainerd was held to six or fewer points eight times. So when Ward spoke about the struggle, every head in the room — all 29 players as well as assistant coaches — nodded in understanding.
To drive his point home, Ward cued up video from a home loss last season, but instead of highlights he showed the handshake line at the end of the game.
"We have to show sportsmanship, but watch this," Ward said, pointing to the body language he and his players showed. "For me that's a 'tired of losing' handshake. That's just frustration. What was going through my mind was: 'What do we need to do to finally turn this thing around?'
"I've heard from coaches about how hard we played and how we were close to being a good team. But I didn't want to hear about moral victories anymore."
Sticking to his coaching beliefs, and with a talented roster that took its lumps as underclassmen, the struggles of Ward's first three seasons are now paying off as Brainerd has become the area's feel-good story of this prep football season.
Last week's impressive 27-point thumping of Region 3-3A opponent Sweetwater improved Brainerd to 4-1, its best record midway through a season in 11 years.
Concluding the meeting that set the tone for this week's practices, Ward admitted to his team: "I shed tears of joy on the drive home last Friday because I haven't forgotten the struggle, and I don't want you to either. Don't ever forget what those walks for a losing handshake and then hearing the other team celebrate felt like."
Few players on the team understand the "No struggle, no story" motto better than senior running back KaDarius Price, whose struggle leading up to the season has already led to an incredible personal story.
When the season began, Price was a member of the mid-state's Cane Ridge High School program. But when it looked like Metro Nashville schools would not be allowed to play this year due to the Davidson County school board's concerns regarding the coronavirus, Price and his family decided he would move to Chattanooga to live with his father, LaDarius, who has worked as a Panthers assistant.
"I was really worried because I just didn't know if we were going to be allowed to play this season in Nashville," Price said. "We still practiced, but honestly it was hard to concentrate, because even though the coaches kept telling us not to lose hope, there was no guarantee I would have a senior season if I stayed there."
The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder arrived at Brainerd just days before the team's third game of the season, against state-ranked Loudon, last year's Region 3-3A champion. He experienced limited action in that night's loss but by the next week was starting in the backfield and ran for 205 yards — averaging 19 yards per carry — and four touchdowns against Lookout Valley.
He followed that with 185 yards and two more scores last week, and by the weekend he had received his first scholarship offer, from Tennessee Tech.
Metro Nashville schools, including Cane Ridge, were finally cleared to begin playing this week, but Price said he is still glad he made the move when he did.
"If I hadn't come here, I believe it would've affected my recruiting. I wouldn't have the offer I do now, that's for sure," said Price, who has 509 rushing yards — just 170 behind the rest of the team's total. "For a college coach to say they like my game and want me to join their program was humbling. I've already heard from several other college coaches, too, so we'll just see what happens the rest of the way.
"I'm just happy to get to play again, to be a part of helping my team and showing what we can do."
Having grown up around the Brainerd program and its players helped Price get acclimated to his new surroundings quicker. He and senior quarterback Xiyeer Lattimore — who has thrown for 810 yards and 11 touchdowns — are one of the city's most versatile backfield duos, with the Panthers having averaged 34 points per game with four double-digit victories.
"He came in and was a great fit right away," said Ward, whose team will try to snap a four-game losing streak to rival Austin-East in a nonregion matchup this week. "We've wanted to be able to run the ball and pound people since I got here, and he's big and strong enough to get those tough yards and also fast enough to break away.
"I've known him since he was little, and I had seen highlights, but to actually see him in person, I'm shocked by how good he is. I had a coach from an FBS program text me this week to say KD is the best kept secret in the state but that the bigger schools are starting to notice.
"I've coached guys with speed before, but I haven't had a back like him in my 12 years of coaching. It's going to be really fun to watch and see how good he can help us become the rest of the way."