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Playing for Blake
How the loss of a former player galvanized one high school football team

Blake Hammock of Jonesboro, Georgia was a local legend around town. Hammock, former standout running back for Piedmont Academy, was a great player. He helped lift Piedmont to its first state championship in 2010 and accounted for over 50 touchdowns before graduating in 2011 and continuing his education at Valdosta State University.

Hammock passed away after a car accident earlier this year, a week before Piedmont played county rival Gatewood. It was a loss that stung the team tremendously. A lot of kids knew him and they looked up to him, Piedmont Academy head football coach Wes Tanner said.

Unfortunately for Piedmont, Hammock wasn’t the only loss that affected the team during the 2014-2015 season. One player lost a grandmother, one player lost an uncle and a coach lost his mother.

The loss of a life can do a lot to people. It can be a heavy weight on your shoulders that brings nothing but pain or it can be a chip on your shoulder that you carry into battle every day allowing that lossed life to live through you. It was the latter for the Cougars football team.

“We faced all that within about a two month period and it just made the boys rally,” Tanner said. “They rallied at every point. Instead of it being kind of ‘woe is me’ I guess you could say, they kept persevering. They kept persevering and playing hard for each other.”

This was Tanner’s first year as head coach. He was a late hire and didn’t get to work until summer. Tanner said he knew the year would be special when he saw the kids buying in early. He said they were excited to play the game again and that was the groundwork of what would become a special season.

Blake’s memory had a lasting imprint on Piedmont and it showed in the opener against Gatewood.

“Before every game – he was No.4 – on our side of the field we painted both fours on the 40 in blue and trimmed them in white,” Tanner said. “Before every game we huddled around one of the fours, we touched the four and we prayed over it. We prayed for effort, for sportsmanship. We prayed for just the thankfulness of being out there to represent Blake and to continue to live his legacy. We had wristbands we wore for him throughout the year. We had a decal on the back of our helmets with his initials on it. I really do feel like that galvanized us together as a team.”

It did.

The Cougars went on to win 14-7 that Thursday night. Tanner says that after that win, he and the players could feel that Blake was with them. They knew he was watching over them. Tanner gave Hammock’s parents the game ball after that win.

Tanner says what makes his team special is their ability to buy in. They’re very team-oriented. At times there were hiccups but Tanner says, “Those kids never batted an eye. They understood and we rocked on. We kept going.”

Piedmont, a team that was coming off of a three-win season, was known for its ability to run the ball. It was expected. Opposing teams would load up the box against the Cougars, but they still couldn’t stop them. Tanner said that offensive line and backfield execution was the key to their success. But he says the fact they also had a sound passing game was crucial piece of the puzzle.

“Hunter Knox had a special year at tailback. He had over 2,300 yards rushing, 30-plus touchdowns. If we needed five yards, Hunter could get us five yards. If we needed 55 yards, Hunter could get us that too,” Tanner said. “Zack Beggs at quarterback. He’s a kid that had taken a couple of years off, but picked the scheme back up like he’d never skipped a beat and led us the entire way there.”

“Hunter Burson and Payden Cantera on the offensive line. They were anchors all year long. They helped guys with the scheme when they weren’t quite sure what to do. Hunter and Payden, we could lean on them,” Tanner added. “Hank Strickland at wide receiver had so many big catches. He had a big catch in the state semifinals, he had a big catch in the state championship game. He was one that was always around the ball and always had a nose for the ball offensively. He also called all of our coverages in the secondary. We were kind of young in the secondary, but he was always willing to take the role of being a DB (defensive back) coach on the field.”

The Cougars used those pieces and the memories of their fallen friends and family to produce a 10-1 season that saw them reach the state championship. Although they fell 42-35 to Memorial Day School, Tanner says this was absolutely a successful season.

“These guys should never have anything to hang their head about now. They played their tails off. For 48 minutes they gave it everything they had. They never quit,” Tanner said. “We had some trials and tribulations even within that game and we just laid it out there. There were times where we could have laid down and quit. They weren’t going to do that. This bunch was high-character. They were never going to be about that. They should not have anything to hang their head about. Going from a three-win team the year before to win 10 games is pretty special.”