Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Athens quarterback Rob Ezell evades the Eufaula blitz as he did all Friday night, helping him earn MVP honors for the Class 5A title game.
A championship feeling
It’s a special night for 5A title-winning Athens Golden Eagles
As cold as it was at Birmingham’s Legion Field on Friday night, the look of the newly crowned Class 5A state champion Athens Golden Eagles warmed the heart.
Temperatures dipped as low as 18 degrees, and even though most of the Golden Eagles wore sleeves under their jerseys, they didn’t feel the freeze.
“I feel real good and I don’t care about the cold, the wind or the digit number. This is awesome,” Athens senior running back Ferrell Williams said minutes after the Golden Eagles accepted their championship trophy.
They earned that trophy with a tough 10-7 win over Eufaula in Friday’s finals.
Truthfully, you just have to see it to understand the magnitude of what an accomplishment like a state championship actually means.
It’s hard to describe, but let me give it a try.
A state champion is two Mr. Football finalists embracing, 5-foot-11 quarterback Rob Ezell wrapped up in 6-foot-3 lineman Alfred McCullough’s arms.
It’s Athens receivers coach Kenny Gilliam picking offensive coordinator Cody Gross up off the ground.
It’s 8-year old Peyton Gross and 10-year old Jake Creasy, both coaches’ sons, getting as close as they can to the players hoisting the championship trophy.
It’s nearly 80 Athens players, coaches, cheerleaders and administration huddled around a small trophy for a picture.
That trophy with blue metal engraving and a silhouette of the state of Alabama is known affectionately by those in athletics throughout the state simply as “the blue map.”
Ezell said it represents what is probably the greatest accomplishment of his life so far, though he added with a laugh that he hopes there are many more feats to come.
This weekend, 17 Athens seniors, a group called “the next legitimate shot” by Athens head coach Allen Creasy when they were eighth-graders, realized the ultimate reward for years of hard work.
“We’ve been knocking on the door for the past two years, and we’ve been doing it with the same guys,” said Creasy, whose Athens teams made it to the semifinals in 2004 and quarterfinals in 2005.
Athens’ Jaquez Pride gives a stiff arm to would-be Eufaula tackler Satero Hardy.
“Everything these guys do isn’t by design, I assure you. You’re either a playmaker or you’re not.”
So, they did it. They were a talented group and they lived up to expectations?
No, it’s not that simple.
There is no easy road to a title, and if there was, it certainly wasn’t the one that Athens traveled.
The Golden Eagles play in 5A, Region 8, which produced four quarterfinalists this season and is known as the state’s strongest.
Athens entered the playoffs with a 7-3 record, and that was the current seniors’ best regular-season record as high school varsity players.
They lost back-to-back games late in the season.
Time and time again throughout their high school careers, they had to overcome less-than-stellar records to make a name for themselves in the state playoffs.
This year, Athens beat No. 2 Fort Payne, No. 5 Hartselle, and No. 8 Briarwood en route to the championship game.
Then in the finals, the unranked Golden Eagles faced an undefeated Eufaula team, which ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in 5A and hadn’t lost a regular-season game since 2004.
Each win proved a little more to the Golden Eagles about themselves.
And then, like every team, there were injuries.
The freshest on the minds Athens players and perhaps the one that rocked the Golden Eagles’ psyche the most came in the semifinal win over J.O. Johnson. Senior linebacker Jeff Leonard tore a knee ligament midway through the game.
Athens’ home crowd had to watch as Leonard limped off the field and sat with his left knee packed in ice. After halftime, he came out in street clothes.
The season statistics sheet handed out at the championship game showed Leonard as Athens’ leading tackler with 111 stops, but he didn’t set foot on the field Friday night.
“It broke our hearts to have him over on the sidelines not playing,” Creasy said.
His teammates adjusted and filled in — the position shuffle included Ezell playing some safety in the second half. And now they will all have the rings to show for it.
“Even if we’d have come out on the losing side, we’ve still built relationships, and I have friends that I know I’ll have for life,” Ezell said.
“Having this is just more of a prize.”
Easy to say when you’ve got a state championship cap on your head and hundreds of screaming fans are waiting to greet you.
But the sincerity that Ezell spoke with minutes after Friday night’s win told the whole story of just what it means to be a champion.
“To be a part of something like this, to be part of a team like this, is something amazing,” he said.
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