In the far northeast corner of Georgia, bordering the South Carolina line and more than 80 miles away from Newton/Rockdale County lies a small place called Elbert County with a of population 20,500 people as of 2012, according to elbertco.net. Elbert is significant to Newton and Rockdale because of the two coaches it birthed - Jonathan Brewer (Rockdale County High School head baseball coach) and Bruce Evans (Eastside High School head baseball coach) - and the men that it made them.
Elbert County is a small place, so small that it has just one high school. Similar to that of Newton and Rockdale decades ago. It's the type of place that forces you to drive 45 minutes just to go to Outback.
Evans, who was the head baseball coach at Elbery County High School, says it was so small that he knew all five board members and they would call him after games. He jokingly added that he only knows one in Newton. If Elbert hadn't been so small, maybe Evans would have never coached Brewer while he was in high school. Maybe they would've never met and developed the close friendship they have now. But Elbert is small and because of it Brewer and Evans developed a close friendship that resembles a big/little brother bond. A bond that gave them both the courage to leave the place they'd called home for so long.
Listening to Evans and Brewer tell their story of coming from a small town over an early dinner Thursday evening at Jim Stalvey's in Covington and you can see the brotherly love the two share for each other now, but it didn't start out that way.
When Brewer was a senior on the baseball team, Evans became a coach in his first year out of college.
"I hated him then," Brewer said laughing.
As an immature young kid, Brewer says he hated how hard-nosed Evans was. It was something that, at the time, Brewer wasn't mentally ready to deal with. Evans gives Brewer more credit than Brewer gave himself and says Brewer was ready by the end of his senior year.
In the last game of Brewer's senior season, the head coach got thrown out, forcing Evans to take over. Evans says Brewer was a good bunter and that he always felt the team never used Brewer right, but when Evans got the chance to, he used him perfectly.
Evans had Brewer bunt each of his three times at-bat, and he executed each one of them - twice for the squeeze play and once for a sacrifice bunt. Brewer says that was probably his best game all season.
The two were reunited when Evans took over the head coaching position at Elbert and asked Brewer to join him, while he was still in college. Brewer was working at a local radio station at the time, but he couldn't pass up the chance to coach at his alma mater.
"I've been around baseball my whole life," Brewer said. "I remember thinking at the time that I knew everything there was to know about baseball." Brewer quickly learned the opposite. He says that Evans taught him tons, but what stuck with him the most was learning how to practice everyday, dealing with parents and cutting kids.
Cutting kids probably doesn't sound like a difficult task to most people. But it was, especially for Evans. Evans, lost his son while he was coaching at Elbert, and Evans was forced to cut his son's best friend that spoke at his funeral. He says it was awful.
"I go home and sleep because I know I did the right thing," Evans said. "I wouldn't sleep good if I kept a kid that didn't deserve it because that isn't fair to that other kid that got cut that did deserve to make it."
Evans always stuck to his guns, kept the best players and played the best nine. In such a small town where everybody knows everybody else's name that became problematic, and Evans says he lost friends because of decisions he had to make.
"I was the one that sat around with him and saw the emotional torture of it," Brewer said. "He has to be strong in front of everyone else, but I was there to see once everybody left the room how much it hurt him to have to do it. Just because it's the right decision doesn't mean it's the easy decision."
Evans says now, he didn't really lose any friends, it just weeded out the people in his life that didn't belong. But it was a valuable lesson for Brewer, as he learned the hardships that nobody sees that comes with the job.
"He taught me that there's no fair treatment. When you do the right thing you're gonna get fussed at and criticized and that's a hard thing to accept," Brewer said. Evans likes to say that "no good deed goes unpunished," which is something he witnessed up close and personal.
Elbert County made the playoffs in four of the six seasons they coached together, and the Evans/Brewer era also resulted in the team breaking the school record for wins in a season with 23. Brewer has a tremendous amount of respect for Evans' ability to win in their hometown. The pressure was always on because they grew up there and the two couldn't go anywhere in the county without running into someone they knew.
"I felt like we couldn't ever get a good coach. I felt like all these other good coaches were going to other schools. They'd come to Elbert County, they'd have a good year and they'd go get what they saw as a better job. I hated that. I hated the way that happened," Evans said. "Everybody used Elbert like a stepping stone and I didn't want to do that. I wanted somebody there that was stable for those kids - like us - growing up. And they had a stable person. I wanted the kids to see me at the little league field and know they're gonna play for me one day. That was my dream. That's why I came back and gave it all I did to make it that way."
Evans wanted to be the best coach in the state of Georgia and he wanted to do it at Elbert County because when Evans played there he went through four different coaches in four years. He felt like nobody wanted to be there. Evans wanted to leave Elbert in better shape than it was when he got there, and he did.
"If we could win a state championship at Eastside I'm gonna blow the roof off I'm gonna be so happy. But just what we did at our hometown and to know without a doubt that we did it better than anyone else ever has, that's a different kind of pride," Evans says. He added that it helped a lot having Brewer along for the ride.
The size of the county had a profound effect on the talent that Brewer and Evans had to work with. Moving to Conyers and Covington has shown them what you can do when you have multiple middle schools fueling the talent of your team.
"In six years, he never had a left-handed pitcher. In six years, he never had a kid from the mound consistently ever throw over 83...and now he has three of them and he has a left handed pitcher now in his first year here," Brewer said. "I have a left-handed pitcher. I've got one throwing 87/88 and a couple 82/83. It's Christmas, man."
Evans and Brewer love their hometown, but they realized last summer it was time to move on. As Evans says, everything happens for a reason. They started looking for coaching jobs throughout the state together.
Evans, at that time, only had a certification to lead physical education (P.E.) classes. He says he got a lot of calls, but none of the schools had P.E. jobs available. So even if coaching jobs were available, he couldn't take them. Evans decided to get his special education certification one Wednesday, he passed the test immediately and emailed Eastside principal Jeff Cher on Thursday. Cher called Evans back later that day and Evans went to visit Eastside on Friday.
He was hired Monday.
Within that same week, Brewer got two job offers and took Evans with him to see both places and get his advice. Brewer was sold on Rockdale and its potential for growth, and the fact that he'd be close to his friend.
"I thank God every day that I'm here, because I love this place. Me and my wife love it and I know he (Brewer) does. I don't know that I could've found a better place to be," Evans said.
"Absolutely," Brewer chimed in.
They carry the heart of their hometown with them wherever they go. It shows that they still care about the place from which they came. The place that made them. If it weren't for their hardships at Elbert, Evans says he wouldn't have ventured out like he did and Brewer wouldn't have taken a chance like he did to get to Rockdale.
It all came full circle earlier in the season when the two met on the field as head coaches for a double-header. Rockdale won the first game (13-7) and Eastside won the second (10-8). Those two games are non-region and would normally have no significance at all, but that day is a day the two will never forget.
"It was about as perfect at it could be in my eyes. I got my first ever career win and he got his 100th," Brewer said passionately. "I wouldn't have had it any other way."