It was 10 years ago this fall that I spent six months at Taft Youth Center. Not as an inmate, mind you, but for a feature story on the football team at the youth detention center.
A photographer and I were granted access to interview coaches and staff members as well as players and their families and follow the team from preseason workouts until the final game.
The first, and probably most lasting, image for me was during an early August practice, watching the teenage boys running offensive plays with a backdrop that included a 12-foot high chain-link fence that encircled the complex and is topped by a double roll of razor wire.
Last season marked 40 years of Taft Tigers football, but it will likely be the last. The new state budget doesn't have the funding for the 90-year-old youth facility tucked away in a Bledsoe County forest, and employees are expected to be given 90-day termination notices soon.
The state will move the 150 or so 16- to 19-year-old inmates to other youth development centers throughout the state, while most of the 167 employees will interview for jobs at the new Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, an adult prison set to open just down the road from Taft in 2013.
While the move to shut down Taft will save the state an estimated $8.5 million, it also will leave a void in the lives of many of the troubled teenagers who wound up there for a variety of reasons, ranging from delinquency and petty theft to assault and homicide. None of the violent offenders were allowed to play football.
But regardless of their charges, each of the 21 Taft players I interviewed in 2002 shared one theme: They all came from broken or single-parent homes.
The benefits of playing the game were far greater than simply getting to go off campus each Friday night in the fall. Vocational training in 10 subjects was included in the curriculum, as well as special education services and GED preparation and testing, but each of the teenagers on the roster said he learned more from his time playing football than he had in any classroom.
Only one of the kids on that year's roster had ever played an organized sport, and by the time the season was over, many of them cried as they explained what it felt like to feel included in something positive, like part of a team, for the first time in their lives.
Drew Jenkins was the best pure athlete on the team that year and I caught up with him in Murfreesboro years after he had been released, followed charges of vandalism, theft and resisting arrest. Prior to serving six months at Taft, Jenkins had spent more than a year at Woodland Hills, a youth detention center in Nashville, and Magnolia Academy, a wilderness camp designed to help troubled teens. But Jenkins told me it wasn't until he was transferred to Taft, and specifically when he began playing football, that he understood the need to change.
"I try to forget my time at Taft, but I hope I never forget what I learned through football," Jenkins said. "I had never experienced what it was like to be on a team -- to depend on somebody else and have them depend on you. It helped me grow up a whole lot.
"You can learn how to do just about any job you want at Taft. And that's good because it helps you to get a job. But football made me feel good about myself, like nothing I had ever done."
The most restrictive of the state's youth development centers, Taft also has been the only one to field a football team. It has played only Class 1A and 2A opponents, and although not a member of the TSSAA and therefore not eligible for the playoffs, the program does sign two-year contracts with opponents.
This is the second year of the newest contracts, leaving teams such as Lookout Valley, Whitwell and Silverdale Baptist scrambling now to look for replacement games on the schedule.
But when Taft does close its doors, more will be lost than just games on Friday nights.
"What the boys take away from it -- learning teamwork and to interact with others in a positive way -- there's not another activity that can even imitate what football does for these kids," Tigers coach Robert "Rooster" Worthington, who has been with the program since 1972, told me once. "It's not about winning here. We take kids who have only gotten to watch others play sports and never participated and give them something to finally feel good about.
"It would be a shame to lose something that is such a positive influence for so many kids who need it."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...