COVINGTON, Ga. — As yet another sign of a return to some sense of normalcy, the three head football coaches of Newton County’s three high schools came together on a familiar stage for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last Thursday, Newton football coach Camiel Grant Jr., Eastside coach Jay Cawthon and first-year Alcovy coach Spencer Fortson paid a visit to the weekly Kiwanis Club meeting to talk about all things high school football while also fielding questions from the audience.
This preseason meeting of coaches and local fans and enthusiasts has been an annual preseason gathering until after 2019 when the pandemic struck and essentially put every public assembly of people in question — including the 2020 football season.
At the pandemic’s height, coaches were trying to figure out if their teams would even be able to play games, much less come together for the sake of fans. But now, as measures to quell the pandemic have improved, the three coaches were excited to find a sense of normalcy again at the Kiwanis Club event.
“I think it’s very important for us to be out in the community like this,” Cawthon said to the group. “I’m from here. I’ve been at Eastside since 2005, so these kinds of events are close to my heart. Whenever I’m asked to speak somewhere like this, I’m more than happy.”
Grant had similar sentiments.
“It’s always important to be involved in the community,” he said. “We’ll jump at chances like these to show our faces because, you know, you all are trusting us with over 400 to 500 kids on a daily basis. We’ve been blessed with the responsibility to lead them, but these are your kids. These are Newton County’s kids, and we respect that.”
The 2022 football season officially begins on Thursday Aug. 18 when the Rams host Class AAAA Hapeville Charter at Sharp Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. non-region contest. It should be a good tune up for Newton as the Hornets have been a consistently successful program over the last several years, winning four straight Region 6-AA championships from 2016 through 2019, and a Class AA state crown in 2017.
The Rams are coming off a tough 2021 season that featured several close losses that kept them out of the Class AAAAAAA playoffs.
Meanwhile, Eastside is slated to open its season on Friday Aug. 19 at Luella while Alcovy welcomes Lithonia to Sharp Stadium on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
The Kiwanis Club event was a first for Fortson who will take the reins of Alcovy’s program after a long stint with Newton as defensive coordinator. Fortson said he was excited to be able to put his stamp on Alcovy football, but also to learn the Newton County community in a different way in his new role.
“I always say that this is our program,” Fortson said. “Not my program, but our program. So I want to be in atmospheres like this because I like your feedback. It will help us make our program better. Hopefully I can gain something from you, the community, and you’ll be able to gain from us as well.”
During the event, coaches were asked questions about their programs, teams and players during a Q&A session with The Covington News sports editor Phillip B. Hubbard. Additionally, club members and guests were able to ask the coaches questions about their teams — everything from who their top players were and how they handle protecting kids from severe injury to how the gate proceeds from home games gets distributed.
One question raised asked how coaches were working to limit collisions among football athletes that could put them at risk for Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a progressive brain condition that’s thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head and repeated episodes of concussion.
CTE has been a hot topic among football fans, players and coaches alike over the years, as some high-profile professional football players have been thought to have the condition after years of playing the high-contact sport.
Cawthon said that, at Eastside, the players wear special head gear in practices to help provide extra protection.
“All our kids have what’s called a guardian helmet which goes on top of the regular helmet,” he said. “It’s protective for our kids.”
One attendee pointed out the fact that Newton County Student Services Director, Dr. Ashante Everett works closely with the Georgia High School Association to make sure that all the equipment used meets proper specifications and that the football programs are using the best available head gear to keep student athletes as safe as possible.
“I can tell you that the helmets the county puts us in, they’re top of the line in every category,” Cawthon said. “We just add the guardian on top. You see that in all the colleges and pros. Now is it 100 percent? Probably not. But we give them as much as we can.”
Grant also mentioned the necessity of proper technique in tackling to help limit preventable injury.
“Our coaches across the board, I think, do a great job of coaching kids on the proper way to tackle,” Grant said. “I’ve witnessed coach Fortson first hand spend a ton of time teaching kids how to tackle and do it the right way. That’s about the best thing you can do to protect them besides just not putting them in the game.”
The coaches also sounded off on the tradition of sharing Sharp Stadium after a question was raised about whether schools would rather have their own individual stadiums.
Each of the three coaches acknowledged the conveniences of having their own stadiums, but quickly followed it up with the pride each school takes in being able to play athletics in what has become a Newton County fixture.
“Sharp is a great place,” Cawthon said. “I’ve played there. Would any school want their own? Yes, but every Friday night whoever’s there, that’s our home field. Our kids grew up like that. They don’t know anything else.”
Said Grant: “Having worked in two other counties where you share stadiums, larger counties like Dekalb and Clayton counties, I can say that where there are advantages to having a stadium on campus, but I think the way we do it in Newton County is kind of the best of both worlds. You’re able to generate revenue and do other things that you maybe can’t do in other places where stadiums are shared.”
Finally, all three coaches expressed excitement about the ability to play each other again as in-county rivals for the Newton Cup. All three schools will play each other in round robin fashion for the chance to come out of the non-region schedule with hometown bragging rights.
Alcovy and Newton will kick it off on Friday Aug. 26, followed by Newton vs. Eastside on Friday Sept. 2 and concluding with Alcovy and Eastside squaring off on Friday Sept. 9, with all game times being at 7:30 p.m.
Each coach talked at length about how important those in-county games are, both to their kids and themselves. But it was Alcovy’s Fortson who summed up the prevailing thoughts of the local coaching trio most succinctly while drawing a laugh from the crowd in the process.
“At Alcovy, we know we want to hopefully put on a good show with these other two guys when we play them,” Fortson said. “We root for those guys and they root for us, because at the end of the day, we want our county to be successful. But when I’m playing against them, I want to be successful.”