What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, when the Newton Rams football team exited the season by exiting the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs in the first round by the narrowest of margins against Parkview, the emotions were all over the place, and the tears flowed freely.
Seniors didn’t want to leave the field. Coaches didn’t want to let their players go. Parents, fans and administrators were visibly heartbroken as they watched a bunch of empty-hearted kids — hearts empty because they’d left them all out on the field — begrudgingly come to the realization that their season, and in some cases, careers, had concluded.
Most casual onlookers, and even some not-so-casual, probably wouldn’t have been able to look at that scene last year and predict what things would be like about 365 days later.
Fast forward to last Friday at West Forsyth, and you saw a fast-starting Newton squad. Defense forcing a turnover, offense picking up two quick first downs and special teams putting up points on the scoreboard first, on the road against a solid Wolverines squad.
But that was about as much carry-over from last year that you’d find in this year’s playoff bunch.
Three-and-half quarters and 35 unanswered West Forsyth points later, and the Rams were on the wrong side of a postseason rout. Season over. Seniors moving on. But a funny thing happened.
It almost seemed as if the Rams — players, coaches and all — were glad that it was over.
To be sure, even with a perceived downgrade of “household name” talent compared to seasons past, a 4-7 2018 finish -- the worst since 2008 -- wasn’t part of the Rams’ plan.
As Newton trudged back to the locker rooms after the last loss of the season, it looked like a far cry from what we saw in our first glimpse of the team back in May when it trounced a talented Salem squad in the annual spring game scrimmage, looking more than ready to prove the doubters wrong.
But the debacle was not just about what had happened on the football field.
Looking back, it was a tough season all the way around that culminated with a bit of a postgame meltdown after the Rockdale loss, and the subsequent resignation of six-year head coach Terrance Banks.
Whenever that kind of stuff is happening, you can guarantee that the frustrations — whatever they are or were — didn’t just rise up out of nowhere and bubble over in that one moment.
Contrary to what some may believe, I -- nor any good high school sportswriter worth their salt -- don't sit around looking for controversy to unearth and dramatic tea to spill about high school sports programs and the coaches who lead them.
We are well acquainted with, and sensitive to the fact that these athletes are still kids and the coaches who coach them (with a few exceptions) are teachers first with families and loads of non-sports responsibilities that don’t allow them the time to devote to their sport that, say, a top NCAA Division I or professional coach may have.
But also, as journalists, when things happen, things happen, and we have an obligation to report it.
Consequently, you’d be surprised at how much high school sportswriters see and hear, with verifiable proof, that doesn’t make print in the name of trying to be fair. But I digress.
Interim head coach, Camiel Grant handled himself about as well as could be expected in a role that was somewhat unexpectedly thrust upon him four days before game time.
From all accounts, it was a great week of practice leading up to last Friday. Spirits were high, and you could tell the players wanted to redeem their season in that game. But even Grant himself acknowledged the difficulty of the short-noticed transition and the abrupt impact of not having Banks on the sidelines.
“It was tough, because I’ve been a coordinator before, and now I’m trying to wear both hats, trying to arrange travel, the logistics of everything getting put in place,” Grant said. “We started a game plan on Sunday with coach Banks, and we pretty much stuck with that game plan. But during the week, usually he and I are able to collaborate and make tweaks to the game plan, but of course, this week we weren’t able to do that. So no question about it. Him not being here didn’t help us in our preparation, and kind of put us behind the 8-ball.”
Those weren’t excuses. Just explanations. Facts, if you will, that prove why it’s difficult to expect any group of athletes on a football team — much less 14-to-17 or 18-year olds — to respond with optimal on-field performance after such a dramatic and sudden turn of events.
Enter Coach Camiel Grant, the program evaluator.
After the game was done and locker room talk was finished, players sort of sauntered around in the hallway before making their way back to the buses. It was a surprisingly lighthearted moment. Seniors were talking about college plans.
Juniors and sophomores casually lingered around, talking about what they could’ve done differently on one play or another, and after a while, Grant emerges, signals that he’s ready to talk with me about it all, and begins to speak on how the first thing he did in the postgame locker room with the kids was wax apologetic — particularly to the ones who played their last down of a high school game.
“First of all, I think because most of those (seniors) have been with us since ninth graders, to be honest, I told them that they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do,” Grant said. “Six a.m. workouts, 30 110s. We’ve never questioned their effort, and we thanked them for it. And then, I apologized to them.
“I told them that we didn’t do a good enough job of holding up that standard, and the last half of the season, that really showed. And that’s on us as coaches to do a better job. And then we told them, we don’t know what the future holds, but if we’re around, we’ll never let that happen again.”
This is Grant in true audition form as he states his case as the right man for the permanent position of Rams’ head football coach.
Forget about what happened on the field. Do I believe Newton had the talent and matched up with West Forsyth well enough to win that game? Certainly. But football shows you time and again that it’s much more a game of cerebral context than what our fascination with height, weight, vertical jumps and 40-yard times may suggest.
Grant, who has made absolutely no bones about his desire to take the reins of the program full time, subtly made his push to show his readiness to do so in the best way possible — by vowing to take a “nothing off limits” approach to evaluating Newton Rams football, even if it hurts.
“To be honest with you, we have to look at everything,” he said. “Even the things we think we’re doing right, and we might be doing it right. But we have to be willing to peel back the layers on every aspect of what we do, from on the field to off the field. Some of that is going to be a little bit painful, because we have to get better as coaches."
Newton has, indeed, done some things right.
Grant, who’s been around the program for 10 years, even predating Banks’ arrival, is one of the most qualified ones to talk about that.
He mentions the Nick Collins coaching era, and how Collins, in his three-year tenure, began to make that slow turning of expectations “from 1-9 and 2-8 being the norm” to regular postseason appearances being the beginning of the standard.
And by the time Collins got to his last season in 2009 —a 6-5 mark and the school’s first trip to the playoffs in seven years — it appeared that some of that foundation was starting to be laid.
Then came Cortez Allen who followed up with a pair of 6-4 seasons before ushering the Rams back to the postseason in his last year at the helm (2012). That playoff appearance would be the start of the current school-record seven-year streak of playoff runs — a streak that Banks continued during his time, and built upon in 2015 with a region championship, only the second in school history, and Newton’s first-ever quarterfinals showing.
Combine that with the fact that half of the Rams’ total of NFL players came out of that era of resurgence from 2009 to present, 14 of the school’s 31 all-time, all-state selections were named in that nine-year stretch, and over 40 Newton players from 2014 to now are playing college football — more than half a dozen doing it currently on the Power Five level — and you can begin to understand why so many coaches and players talk about preserving and protecting the NewtonBoyz brand.
But the thing about progress and positive evolution is that change, even if uncomfortable, often becomes unavoidable. And Grant knows this.
"There are some things that may have worked for us in the past, but maybe those things are just not the right thing to do anymore," he said. "And we’ve got to be willing to take a long hard look at that. I wish I could tell you it was just one or two things, but to be honest, it’s everything we have to look at and be willing to change it for this program and the betterment of these kids.”
That’s why this next hire is so important. Newton got its respectable name, not because it as has the best facilities or because the school is nestled in a metropolitan hotbed of football talent. It’s a Class AAAAAAA school without some of the big-boy Class AAAAAAA bells, whistles and attractional pull.
A casual glance at one of several palatial high school football domains in Georgia is all that’s needed to provide a stark reminder that there are, indeed, haves and have-nots in high school football.
At Buford, for instance, the first thing you see on game day upon pulling up is a college football-style tailgate experience nestled in between an assortment of football practice fields and facilities and a gorgeous stadium.
Remember Lowndes? Its 15,000-seat football stadium, dubbed "The Concrete Palace," would put some NCAA Division II digs to shame.
At Newton, the first thing that may greet you upon pulling up on campus is a collection of cows grazing in a field.
That's not me taking a shot at Newton. It's just being real about some of the surface-level differences between our beloved Rams and much of the upper class, if you will, in the Georgia high school football world.
The Rams have made the progress they’ve made, however, not because of fancy stadiums and practice facilities and cool, shiny football program toys, but because of hard work and carrying a bit of a chip of disrespect on their shoulder.
I remember defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator, Josh Skelton telling me a story of how one of the first 7-on-7 offseason camps he took Newton players to featured people peppering him over and over with the question, “Now where’s Newton at again?”
People don’t really ask that anymore.
In fact, after Banks announced his resignation, many of the folks who were hittin’ my DMs on Twitter to find out what happened were college coaches — people who’d built up recruiting relationships with Newton players over the years.
So the Rams are on the map. They’re on the radar. They've established cachet as a producer of college-ready athletes. But sometimes it takes a different skill set or a different voice or different methods to grow that blip on the radar.
That’s what this hire will be about. Preparing the Newton brand for expansion.
With the kind of talent that has come through the school over the last 10 years, some would contend the Rams should’ve been able to compete for a state title by now, or at least find that quarterfinals sweet spot with regularity.
And with the fact that Newton County middle schools are still churning out athletes who look poised to grace the Power Five stage some day, you’d best believe the expectations aren’t going to get any lower, especially not with recent tastes of success, and proof that elite, next-level talent can emerge from 1 Ram Way in Covington.
From athletic director Vincent Byams to coaches to players, whenever you ask the question, “Can Newton football compete for state championships in Georgia’s largest classification,” the answer is always a resounding and emphatic “yes.” They’re hungry for it.
And while resumes from coaches who want in on that Class 7A pie are, no doubt, flooding the inboxes of Newton’s AD and principal, it could very well be possible that the person best equipped to lead Newton to that promised land could already be in place.
There are times when it’s better to just blow the whole thing up and start again from scratch when it comes to coaching hires and program/culture building or rebuilding. And then there are times when continuity wins the day.
Grant has been praised, by administrators, current and former players, coaches and parents alike, as an even-keeled, consistent and beloved coach who has the experience, knowledge and temperament needed to not only stabilize a slightly shaky program, but to strengthen it and prep it for future glory.
The foundation is set. Whether or not Grant gets a shot at building upon it remains to be seen.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.