Tommy Gregory and the NHS 2020 ClassNewton Rams running backs coach Tommy Gregory celebrates a lighthearted moment with a portion of the class of 2020 which was a part of his first freshman football team.
COVINGTON, Ga. — Tommy Gregory was shocked when he found out he had went mini-viral on social media.
To him, it was just an innocent picture accompanied by a fun, light-hearted video. It happened toward the end of the Newton High football team’s Saturday morning picture day. As individual players were getting team headshots and keep sake photos for their families, Gregory struck up an idea.
“I want to get all my 2020 guys,” Gregory said while looking around the Newton gym, scouring the scene for anyone who fit that description. “Those guys were my first freshman class,” he added proudly.
This in a time when Newton’s football program had just begun its freshman team. Gregory, a former Liberty Middle School football coach back in the school’s back-to-back championship era, was tasked with coaching this first crop of football freshman as they stepped on campus, still wet behind the ears with middle school lunch on their breath.
Now, several from this team, like senior wideout and 3-star prospect Robert Lewis, are sought after Division I football prospects. Four years ago, they were just trying to survive their first high school workout with coach Gregory.
Apparently that’s the one — even after all these years of 5:50 a.m. workouts and running summer 110s — that sticks out the most.
“We didn’t have a sled back then, and I had an old F150 truck,” Gregory said, recalling the first freshman team workout he administered. “I would get in the back of it, or drive it and they’d push it around the field.”
And how did these freshmen feel after it was all said and done?
“Hurt,” Josh Hardeman said, triggering a response of laughter from several of his fellow Class of 2020 teammates.
Christopher Black remembers it especially, because it was almost his first and last football workout.
“I’d never played football before high school,” he said. “So when I went through that first workout, I actually did almost think about quitting. I remember thinking is this what I really want to do. But I came back the next day and said, ‘Let’s get it again.’ I think the tough workouts and all the sticking together and pulling through is what makes this group so special.”
Special for the players. Special for Gregory for many reasons.
“I’m kind of in a weird place here, because I’m celebrating the academic and athletic success of my first group of freshman, but also looking at the freshman group I have now, knowing that it’ll be my last group,” Gregory said. That’s because Newton will phase out its freshman team next year, combining it with JV and Varsity.
“I’m super proud of these guys,” he continued. “In every freshman team you have some attrition. But the retention in this group has been the greatest. These guys have stayed. We lost one just to a transfer because his family moved. But these guys, not only did they stay, but they progressed. They became leaders, captains, starters. I’ve always told them this will be the group that will take this program places it’s never been.”
They’ve certainly done that for Gregory’s heart
A Smile to Soothe a Dark Day
Gregory’s smile caught by camera on that mini-viral photo was more than just a timely-caught image. It embodied, in a moment, all the joy that this particular group of Newton Rams had given to Gregory over the last 3 1/2 years.
But this latest infusion of joy was probably the one the coach needed most, considering what happened on the 4th of July.
“You know, when you’re mentoring guys, some of them do what we call ‘make it,’ and some do what we deem ‘not making it,’ whatever that means,” Gregory said. “That has 100 different meanings.”
One of his guys who didn’t make it — at least not to a life of longevity — was Newton graduate and sports enthusiast Kevin Marshall.
Marshall was killed on the 4th of July after a confrontation with Joshua Anderson ended in Marshall being run over by a truck believed to be driven by Anderson. Since that day, Anderson’s been arrested and is awaiting trial. Gregory, along with Marshall’s family and the entire Newton High School community, is still waiting for answers.
“That day it happened, I missed a call,” Gregory said. “I had left my phone in the truck, and something told me to go get it on that 4th of July day. I saw the text message. It said, ‘Coach, Kevin just got killed.’ When I talked with Kevin’s mom and she told me what happened, my world just stopped.”
Marshall had just spent time at Gregory’s house the day before. They bantered about who was going to beat who on the bench press the next time they worked out together. They planned for a weight room showdown for the next weekend.
That day never came for Marshall.
“When I learned how it happened, it took me for a loop,” Gregory said. “I knew there were some divine things going on with Kevin. What helped me to close better was focusing on the why and not the how of his death. If I focused on the how, it would take the divine part out of it.”
Gregory said the seemingly hateful way of Marshall’s death stretched his faith beyond anything in recent memory.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I’m a believer. But I’ll be honest. I was fighting vengeance in my heart. It definitely strengthened my prayer life. You know, every round goes higher and higher. And I think about if he was here today, what would he say.”
Marshall affectionately called Gregory, “Unc.” Gregory says it’s almost like he can here Marshall’s voice calling out to him in that way. It’s what helps him continue to push through.
“I know if he were here, he’d say, ‘Unc, God’s got this. Don’t worry about it. Go tell the guys I said hey.’”
Many of ‘those guys’ were in that picture with Gregory that day.
“There’s about 25 of those guys that are really dear to my heart,” he said. “And that day on picture day, it was like I thought about how I’d lost one, but I was still working with a 24-pack. So that day, and that picture, and that smile you saw, it was kind of a redemption thing. It renewed my excitement and let me know we could still move on.”
A ‘jaw-dropping’ crew
Gregory has a football philosophy.
“Victory is not always in the numbers, but rather in the way a man competes, and what he takes away from the game,” he recited thoughtfully during the aftermath of last month’s East Metro Atlanta Football Media Day.
It’s not only the thing that guides his coaching, but also how he measures the progress of the young men he’s helped over the years.
“Not many things drop my bottom jaw,” Gregory said. “However, some instances with these guys, my bottom jaw dropped. They’ve really astounded me.”
He mentioned starting quarterback Neal Howard who came in as a freshman about 150 pounds soaking weight and “unable to throw a football 30 yards accurately.”
“Now, he’s zipping it wherever he wants to zip it,” Gregory said. “He’s placing it in an accurate window. He’s throwing to routes. If he chooses to place a receiver, he has a nice back shoulder.”
And Howard has no problem attributing Gregory with the lion’s share of credit for his progression.
“Man, I’ve had a great experience with these guys,” Howard said. “Coach Greg developed us to go hard. He believed in us. He got me stronger in the weight room. That’s what it was. My eighth grade year I weight about 150 pounds. Now I’m 170. I got taller and stronger, and just being with these guys I grew up with, I just got better.”
Josh Hardeman is another jaw dropper.
The 6-foot, 175-pound running back and strong safety has gone from being just a little jitterbug type player to a Power Five prospect with offers from the likes of Purdue of the Big 10 Conference.
“I’ve always known Hardeman to be a little fast and a little shifty,” Gregory said. “But now, it’s like he’s the fastest guy I know.”
All Hardeman did to prove that is clock a 4.3-second 40-yard dash during a camp at Mercer this summer. He’s expected to be one of a handful of big-play guys on either side of the ball for Newton.
Hardeman says he couldn’t have gotten here without Gregory’s presence and that first freshman squad.
“That first day, man,” Hardeman said. “We were out there doing Military stuff. ROTC type stuff. But he did it to us because he was a loving, caring man. He always pushed us from day one, and because of that, I’m better because I put in the work in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom.”
Linebacker Ronald Graves, a fellow member of the Class of 2020, says Gregory gets the assist for getting him to Newton.
“I’ve know him since I was about 7 or 8 years old,” Graves said. “We went to the same church together, and he’s definitely one of the reasons why I came to Newton. His workouts were hard the first day in. He didn’t let us do anything under 225 pounds.”
And now that he sees the benefits, he appreciates it more, and is sad to see their time together coming to an end.
“It’s surreal,” Graves said. “These guys have been playing ball with me since we were about 6 or 7. We got closer here with coach Greg. So now it’s time for us to finish out our high school career with these guys. I expect nothing less than state.”
Gregory’s expectations for his prized group are just as lofty.
“I’ll never stop expecting greatness from these guys,” he said. “I don’t think any thing I hear them do, whether here as seniors, or after high school will surprise me. These guys have become amazing young men. I’m proud of them.”