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STOVALL: Camiel Grant era with Newton football begins with a confirming tug of the heart strings
Stovall's Sound Off
Camiel Grant
Newton head coach Camiel Grant, Jr. embraces senior wide receiver, Mike Mathison after the Rams' 35-3 loss to West Forsyth in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs. Grant also shared a tender moment with his team after Thursday's announcement that he'd been promoted to long-term head coach. -photo by Anthony Banks

Forget about the Xs and Os. Put his coaching pedigree, natural ties with the community and familiarity with the program aside for a moment.

Let’s even sidestep the fact that he killed the interviews and got unanimous support from the panel of coaches, faculty and Covington community members and leaders who were called in to help the process along. 

Newton AD Vincent Byams didn’t need any of those things to validate why Camiel Grant, Jr. was the right choice to lead the Newton Rams football program. 

Instead, he looked to one impromptu moment of care and compassion from the new coach to his new team, right on the heels of the jubilation that followed the official announcement of Grant’s promotion.

The exuberance in the room was thick after Grant’s upgrade had been officially announced. Players and coaches alike didn’t hold back their fits of joy and excitement. But then, Grant silenced the group and cut through the euphoria to address a major heart issue affecting one Newton Ram in particular. 

It takes Byams to talk about it. 

“Biggest confirmation for me that he was the right guy: A young man lost his mother some days ago, and when everything was said and done regarding the announcement, and everyone was clapping for joy, coach Grant took a moment to remind the guys about the holidays, what you should do and how you should act, and to remember we’re about family,” Byams said. “Remember we’re about one another and the love we have for one another.”

Then the new coach provided a powerful object lesson. 

“Through the excitement, he took time to stop and hug that young man,” Byams continued. “And what happened immediately after, everybody got up and hugged him and huddled around him and started praying for that young man. As he was crying and suffering through the loss of his mother, that moment quickly turned from joy into, ‘let’s pick up our fallen brother.’ 

“They knew to do that right away, and coach Grant led them into that. That moment gave the understanding that this is what it means to be a part of Newton football. It was confirmation that it’s bigger than just football.” 

Why that moment? Why not Grant’s answer to what he would do on fourth down with the game on the line? Why not Grant’s plan to bring football region and state championships to 1 Ram Way in Covington?

Because in the grand scheme of things, especially when you’re dealing with 14-to-18 year old kids, that isn’t what it’s all about. And while there are, no doubt, many coaches across this vast Georgia high school football landscape that probably understand that notion, it was Grant who is head and shoulders above the rest as the right one for this job at this particular time. 

“Everybody has a desire to win a state championship,” he said. “And so do I. But more important for us is to be a consistent program, consistently competitive at the highest level, consistently being able to put kids in school to play football or not to play football. 

“We want student-athletes leaving here ready to go to the next level in work, tech school or whatever the case is. If a young man comes through our program, he ought to be able to handle himself in the next phase of life, whether that’s with football or not.”

To be sure, Newton Rams football isn’t in shambles. Push past the 4-7 2018 season, the Rockdale debacle and the West Forsyth rout in the playoffs. Don’t judge the state of Newton football by those three snapshots alone. 

Those three snapshots just spelled out the thought that everybody probably knew was prevailing if they’re honest — that it was time for a change. And I’m not just talking about a coaching change. But a morale change. A direction change. A shot in the arm, if you will.  

One thing Byams did was salute Grant’s immediate predecessor, coach Terrance Banks, for the fact that “he’s done a lot for putting Newton football back on the map.” 

That’s not hyperbole. That’s not the AD playing nice. It’s true. Newton’s last six years under Banks was the best six-year period in the program’s history in terms of playoff appearances, contending for (and winning) region championships and plugging guys into big time college football success. 

But you can tell when it feels like a stalemate has come. You can tell when it’s time to add another level to the scaffolding and go a little higher. And having been around to lead change in various contexts over the years, one thing I know is that although it feels awkward at first, when it’s done the right way, all parties will likely look back at it all, years down the road, and decide that it was necessary for everyone involved. 

And for where Newton football is right now and where it needs to go, Grant is necessary. 

He’s necessary because, as it stands, Newton needs a builder — someone who can stand surely on the foundation laid and take intelligent and intentional next steps to erect the program’s next levels. 

He’s necessary because he’s been there-done-that, at Newton, yes, but not just at Newton. He’s had stops at MLK and Mundy’s Mill. He’s been around the game. He knows football. He knows high school football. 

And, yes, he’s necessary because he knows Newton high school football. He was here for the beginning of the Rams’ emergence when Cortez Allen took the reins from Nick Collins and started contributing to what would soon become a yearly playoff contender. 

He knows the community. He knows the vibe here. He knows what people want and don’t want from the football program that represents the county’s oldest school. And Grant makes no bones about articulating what that is. 

“Over the long haul, what I want is for Newton football — and this is not a knock over any other program in the county — but I want Newton football to be the standard for football in this area,” Grant said. “I’m talking about Newton County, Rockdale County, South DeKalb County. We want it to be the standard.”

Now to his credit, Grant will be the first one to acknowledge that he’ll have to deal with a learning curve as he makes the transition from assistant coach to long-term head coach. And for that reason, he said he’s made a list of people, including coaches, administrators and business owners, whom he wants to pepper with “about 15 to 20 questions” that will help him more efficiently learn the new expectations of his role as he goes. 

“And the question at the top of the list,” he says, “is, ‘Tell me what I don’t know that I should know.’” 

Whether he knows it or not, that’s probably one of the best questions he could possibly ask. Not just because of the helpful answers he may get, but because of the posture of humility and teachability — even from a coveted leadership position — it demonstrates. And humility and teachability goes a long way in winning over the confidence of current and future supporters.

And I don’t care who you are or how much you know or what position you hold — you can always stand to learn from the people around you — even if they don’t know the first thing about gap integrity or RPO offense. 

In high school football, there’s no such thing as “winning the press conference” like there is when a major college football or NFL coach is named and presented. In those circles, winning the press conference is all about impressing folks like us who are on the outside, looking in, yet often thinking we know more than we really do. 

No. In high school ball, you’ve gotta win the locker room first. You’ve gotta win the kids and their parents and the community. 

And with that powerful gesture of others-centeredness, in a moment where Grant could’ve easily made it all about him and football, Grant won the locker room when he stopped the celebration dead in its tracks to remind his boys that winning at life and winning through loving each other in hard moments is more important than winning on the scoreboard. 

And so it begins. The 17th coach in Newton football history officially kicks off his tenure in the wee hours of the morning of Wednesday January 9 — 6 a.m. to be exact. And that’s straight from the coach’s mouth. It’s the date he’s circling for himself.

School will be back in session. Winter conditioning is set to begin. Grant will start chopping down his “First 10 days” priority list, which includes not only kicking off winter workouts, but repairing and rebuilding relationships that matter, from the booster club to finding fresh ways to connect his program into the Covington/Newton County community. 

Grant’s already been working, though. From the moment he took on interim duties, he said that he and his staff were working as if the job was already his — not from a place of arrogance, but from a sense of duty. 

“I felt like, no matter who came in here to take over, we needed to work to make sure things were together and that there was no drop-off, and that the transition would be as seamless as possible,” Grant said. 

Turns out he was working to prepare a better way for himself all along. 

Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for story ideas at Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.