COVINGTON, Ga. — Although the Eastside Eagles football team will be one of the last Newton County athletic teams to pay tribute to Covington Police Department officer Matt Cooper, theirs will arguably pack in a little more meaning.
Cooper, who was injured in the line of duty last Monday while trying to stop a shoplifter, is a 2002 graduate of Eastside and also played on the Eagles’ football team when the program’s first head coach Jeff Van Tone was pacing the sidelines along with current Eastside principal Jeff Cher who was one of Van Tone’s assistants.
After Wednesday’s final practice before Thursday’s Region 4-AAAA opener at North Clayton, Eastside head coach Troy Hoff showed his team the “148” decal that each of his athletes would wear on their helmets for their 7 p.m. kickoff at Southern Crescent Stadium in Riverdale.
Hoff called it a closer-to-home kind of honor for him and his program to recognize one of Covington’s finest who also happens to be one of Eastside’s own.
“It does mean a little more to us,” Hoff said. “It means a lot here because Matt played football here for coach Cher when he was still coaching football. You know, he’s an Eagle. There’s a lot of those guys from coach Johnson with the kickers who used to be on the EMTs, with the fire department, lots of guys in blue and on rescue, whether they be in the county or the Covington PD, who went to school here, played here, follow us and have relationships here.”
One picture that’s surfaced during the support outpouring features Officer Cooper donning his No. 52 jersey along with officers Ed Digby and Wesley Atha. Hoff said the meaningful thing about Eastside’s tribute is that it shows how connected the school’s community still is with the Covington community at large.
“A lot of these kids on our team have lived here in Covington their whole lives, so their families know all these people,” Hoff said. “We’ve seen the picture of Matt with Officer Digby and Officer Atha. And it really does mean a lot to our guys who have that respect forth them and what they do. And I think it means a lot to our community to know where they came from.”
Eastside finalized the first of its two bye weeks Wednesday with a final day of preparation for a struggling North Clayton squad that’s scored just one touchdown in its first three games.
But none of that matters to Hoff. And he’s tried to stress to his guys during the bye week to keep the focus inward, regardless of the opponent.
“It’s about a standard of play for us,” Hoff said. “It’s not about them, or any team we play. We’re not looking to play at anybody else’s level. I tell our guy it’s about the level you’ve shown you can play at and aspire to play at that level or better.”
Hoff called it a “great week of prep,” despite the shortened schedule a Thursday night game brings. He said bye week number one was spent refining things and shoring up details.
“It’s been a blend of getting our work in and getting our feet underneath us, while still not being on the field more than we have to,” he said. “We fit a few special teams in, worked on us, added a few wrinkles, but we’re not overloading guys. We got some running in that they probably didn’t like that much, but we’re really still week to week with game planning.”
Even though most look to bye weeks as a time to get healthy, Eastside is in pretty good shape in that regard, despite losing senior defensive lineman Jarrett Dalton, at least for the short term, after he sustained a foot injury during a recent practice.
“Jarrett broke his foot in practice, which was tough for him, because he’s just a kid who’s absolutely worked his butt off to get snaps and do a good job,” Hoff said. “Hopefully it’s not anything long term, but other than that, things have been pretty good. We’re going through the process with a few guys, and we’ll see how they respond.”
After North Clayton comes another bye next week before returning to action to host Luella (Sept. 27), traveling to Woodward Academy (Oct. 5) and coming back to Sharp Stadium to welcome Salem (Oct. 12).
A win at North Clayton tonight would give Eastside its first 4-0 start to a season since the 2008 squad that started out 5-0 before losing its first game, a 24-7 setback to Hart County. That Eastside team went on to win a Region 8-AAA crown and had a quarterfinals finish in the Class AAA state playoffs.