STEVENSON, Ala. — The sounds rising from the manicured practice field were similar to those throughout the Chattanooga area. Teenage boys whooping and hollering, pads popping and coaches excitedly yelling encouragement, corrections or challenging a player for more effort.
It's the sounds of spring football practice, but there's a noticeable difference here from the 70-plus other area high school programs.
Last week, just days before spring practice was scheduled to start at North Jackson and only three months after accepting the job, David McKinney resigned, leaving the 60-plus Chiefs players without a head coach and only two young assistants remaining on staff from last season.
Knowing there wasn't time to conduct a thorough search, interview and hiring process before the deadline to conduct spring workouts, principal Sam Houston decided he would oversee spring practice, then resume the coaching search. Once word began to leak throughout the community that the program was in need, former Chiefs Josh Harding, Todd Hughes and Matt Barnard volunteered their time for the next two weeks.
The biggest shot of adrenaline for the kids came when Ali Sharrief and Tana Patrick, two former all-state Chiefs who own national championship rings with the University of Alabama, called Houston to pledge their help. Sharrief even coaxed former Crimson Tide teammate Marcus Carter, who played at Fort Payne High School, to help coach.
Even without knowing who their next head coach will be, the current Chiefs got a boost from the presence of Houston and the former players, especially the three Tide defenders.
"It's cool to have Ali and Tana out here, because we all know what they did here and at Alabama," said senior two-way lineman Robert Pylant. "And to see Coach Houston out here gets me even more pumped up. You can tell how much he loves it.
"They take time to make sure you know exactly what you're supposed to do, and whether you do it right or wrong, they let you know about it. I like it."
On their way from the field house to the practice field, players walk past a storage shed with the word "TRADITION" painted along the side in huge block letters. But it's more than just a word at a program that has averaged 11 wins and played in two state championships since its first season in 1988. What football means to this community is obvious by the dozens of supporters sitting on truck tailgates or lawn chairs at the practice field for the duration of the two-hour-plus workout.
Sharrief and Patrick count off pushups for players who make a mistake or don't hustle on the field. Whether it's coming on and off the field, getting from one drill to the next or even in and out of the huddle, walking is not allowed at any time.
After a young running back broke the tackle of a starting linebacker, Sharrief yelled, "Ya'll got any pride? If you do you'll get mad and hit somebody in the mouth for that! Rock him!"
On the next play, a gang of Chiefs shed their blocks and drilled the ball carrier to the ground. Sharrief, Patrick and Harding all sprinted along with the entire defense to congratulate the players in on the big hit, whooping and yelling and slapping helmets.
"This is a hit squad over here!" Sharrief yelled in the direction of the offensive players making their way back to the huddle.
"I'll do whatever I can to help this team. I owe everything to this program," Sharrief said later. "Coach Houston and this community were there to support me when I was a player, so I didn't hesitate. It's my turn to give back. Everything I learned about work ethic and how to play the game, I learned from my coaches here. Once I got to Alabama, I learned how to think during the game, to analyze things quickly so I could react. That's what I'm trying to pass along now."
And no other coach or even player is having more fun than Houston, who played on North Jackson's first team and was an assistant for 14 seasons before going into administration six years ago.
Houston also wantd to make sure the school carried out its agreement to scrimmage at Marion County next Friday. That game will be a huge draw for both communities.
"It took me about 30 seconds to realize I was back home," said Houston, who played on Jacksonville State's 1992 national championship team. "I joked with the kids before we went out the first day that they may not have their head coach yet, but they've got three guys with five national championship rings to coach them and three more that played in a state championship game here, so we have a lot of guys who take a lot of pride in making sure this program doesn't miss a beat."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having 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, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...