by Russell Cooks
What do you call of a team of 22 youth football players that has seen 75 percent of their crew sign college scholarships? You call it a super class, and that’s exactly what the initial graduating class of the Sandy Creek Youth Football Association is. You knew that the group was special when they won the 12U Super Bowl. Now, you have 10 that have signed college football scholarships, one that signed a Division 1 basketball scholarship, one that signed a Division 1 baseball scholarship, and five that signed academic scholarships. What a class!
Building the Team
“We started with the nucleus of the team that had been together for two or three years. I found a few kids who went to school with my son but at the time had a little football experience,” said head coach Kevin Early of building the team. “Tarik Thurman and Payton Smith were two of the fastest kids on the team and developed into a very good football players. I had known the Kellums since Isaac was in second grade, and I was finally able to convince his dad to let him come play with us. He turned out to be a great leader and an outstanding quarterback on the team. Then came Javon Jackson and Elijah Holyfield, son of Heavyweight Boxing Champion Evander Holyfield, who were best friends and provided the last pieces necessary to round out the team.”
Charles Kellum, Isaac Kellum’s dad, added, “Coach Early knew us through his wife who was Isaac’s second grade teacher. He and I had talked off and on and he knew Isaac was a quarterback. We had played primarily in Clayton and Fulton County so I wasn’t aware of the talent in Fayette at the time, but I knew that Coach Early was a quality guy, so we decided to join the team.”
Not only did Coach Early build a team of quality players, he also assembled a team of quality coaches. He described his staff by saying, “Just as important as the players were the coaches. My staff consisted of dads like myself, Rodney Jackson, Louthez Wyatt, and Andrew Clark. I then recruited former Sandy Creek high school players who had just graduated from college where they played football at a high level. Those coaches, Gerren Griffin, Josh Haney, Mike Lockett, and Mike Gates brought something very special to the team. They were able to relate to the players, but they were all very humble and listened to the counsel of the head coach and the older assistant coaches. We were a very cohesive group. No egos and the kids felt that and fed off of it.”
God was really smiling down on Coach Early and the 12U football team. Not only was he able to recruit four talented young assistants with Division 1 College experience, they all played different positions at top rated programs. They all also played together under Coach Rodney Walker.
Gerren Griffin, who played defensive back at James Madison University, was a member of two regional title teams at Sandy Creek High School. He was also two-time all-county and all-area. He also set a team record with five interceptions as a junior and Defender of the Year as a senior.
Josh Haney, who played wide receiver at the Citadel, was the 2004 Fayette County Offensive Player of the Year. He was also selected to the 2004 All-County Football Team and the All-Area Football Team. Moreover, he was also the 2004 Team Captain and MVP award winner for Sandy creek. Josh is also the son of Lee Haney, 8-Time Mr. Olympia and a trainer for Evander Holyfield.
Mike Lockett, who played defensive line at Wake Forest University, was a three-year starter at Sandy Creek High. He was selected to the 4A All-State Team and he was the Fayette County Defensive Player of the Year. He also played basketball for Sandy Creek.
Mike Gates, who played offensive line for Mississippi State University, played tight end for Sandy Creek. They won the region 4-AAAA Championship and he caught 10 passes for 200 yards and scored three touchdowns. He was primarily a basketball player until he moved down South. He led his basketball team to a 20-5 record as the team’s third leading scorer as a sophomore at Tuckahoe High School in Westchester, New York.
From Concept to Reality
“I first realized that the team was special in the scrimmage before our first game. We scrimmaged a team that was much larger and bolder that we were, but our team competed. I saw a lot of fight and our kids, a lot of heart, and a great deal of talent,” said Coach Early.
“When we set up the offense and defense for the first time for a scrimmage a week before the first game, I saw that we did not have a weak link on either side of the ball,” said Coach Rodney Jackson.
Nicholas Meeks, who will be attending Kennesaw State University on an academic scholarship, added, “I realized this team was special by the first game against North Henry. We all were amped up and we all came together as a family. As a team we all played significant roles, but we all had one objective and that was to win a championship. The talent on that team was so significant we knew the only ones who could truly stop us were ourselves.
“We all counted on each other. Our team loved to win. Losing was never really an option for us. That’s why so many of our players our so successful today.”
Tariq Muhammad, a Hiram College signee, said,” I realized that my teammates were special when we played against teams that were bigger and stronger than us. Even at 12 years old, we had a high football IQ and could outsmart teams that were supposed to be better than us. I played linebacker on the team, even as small as I was. I could tackle hard and low and had the speed to run across the field to make a play. Teams didn’t expect that.”
“I didn’t realize how special they were as a unit until that North Henry game which was the first game of the season. Javon Jackson, Elijah Holyfield, Keyshaun Clark, Jordan Lyons, and those guys were playmakers on both sides of the ball. Isaac was perfect for running the offense that Coach Early put together and the team just took off,” added Charles Kellum.
Malik Early, Fort Valley State University signee, said, “I realized we were a special group when I overheard players from other teams that weren’t on our schedule saying how good our team was.”
Javon Jackson, Duke University Football signee and Fayette County 2016 Football Player Of the Year, added, “I felt like we were special after our first game after beating North Henry who was supposed to be the best team in our league. I knew that we were going to be good, we had way too many weapons offensively and defensively.”
Jordan Lyons, Furman University Basketball signee and McIntosh’s career scoring leader, said, “I realized this team was special when we started preseason workouts. I realized that we had so much talent and we were deep at literally every position.”
Cole Jackson, Georgia State University Baseball signee and potential MLB draftee in June, “I realized we were special when we were blowing teams out every weekend. Everybody in the entire league was afraid of us and we liked that.”
A Memorable Season
“My most memorable moment was all of the hard work at practice. Doing the same drills and exercises that the high school team did was difficult, but it made our team better in every way possible,” remembered Malik Early.
Meeks added, “I grew up playing football at Old National Park so the transition to Sandy Creek wasn’t very smooth for me. The atmosphere was very different, but I knew some people so it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I didn’t really feel connected until we put on the jerseys for the first time and that’s when I recognized everyone on that team was my family.
“Most memorable moment is the first game of the season, that’s when I earned a clean spot on the roster. North Henry had a running back named Elijah Gilmore he could really run we couldn’t really stop him the entire first quarter. I was a very physical guy so our coach put me in the game and told me earn a spot. That’s exactly what I did. Elijah got the ball on an Iso and ran down the middle and clap! Me and him just collided, and my team used the hit as a statement hit. We came out flying and hitting the rest of the game and we won. That hit just gave us a spark. That’s a moment I can’t erase from my head because me and Elijah are very close now so when I’m with him I usually tease him about the moment.”
Muhammad said, “The thing I remember the most about the season was beating Sharpsburg’s 12U team for the championship. I played middle school football with a lot of those guys, and all they could talk about was beating that ‘new 12U football team in Fayette County.’ We showed them how good we were coached and how hard we could played. I don’t think they expected the type of competition we gave them.”
Jordan Lyons replied, “My most memorable experience was when we capped off the undefeated season by winning the SuperBowl.”
“The most memorable thing about the season was winning the championship in the final minutes of overtime”, added Cole Jackson.
Coach Early said, “It is difficult to pick just one memorable moment from that season. If I had to narrow the moments down, I would say our first game and our last game were perfect bookends.
“In our first game we were the new kids on the block. No one I have ever heard of us or seen us play. We played a North Henry team that had not lost a game in several years. We played well, showed a lot of heart and outlasted them in the end. Our team started to believe in themselves after that.
“The Super Bowl was very memorable. We played a team who had given us trouble all year long. We knew we had to play well because they were bringing their A game. As it turned out we didn’t play very well throughout the game and went to overtime. And overtime that’s where the heart of a champion showed through. On the last play of the game everybody did their job perfectly and Javon Jackson ran in for the winning touchdown. Fans coaches and players all went crazy. It was a perfect end to a near perfect season.”
Javon Jackson echoed Coach Early’s sentiment, saying, “My most memorable moment was in the championship game. We were down to a team that we had beaten twice already, and we had had enough. On the opening drive coming out of halftime, we got the ball on our own 9-yard line and we ran one play the entire drive. We established the dominance we had on our offensive line. We just alternated running the ball between me and Elijah Holyfield. They could not stop us and we just ran the ball down their throats.”
Rodney Jackson, Javon’s dad, said, “The championship game. We didn’t play well, and we punched a touchdown in late in the game to win it. The celebration was simply crazy.”
On May 20, the celebration will be even crazier as this group of successful young men walks across the stage as high school graduates and moves on the next chapter in their lives. You know that they are going to do some remarkable things because they are an extraordinary group, and they are “the First Class.”