I love comparisons and numbers. Pretty crazy for a guy who almost allowed math — particularly algebra — to keep him from graduating high school.
True, I’m not big on solving equations and understanding the practical purposes of logarithms. But you throw some sports numbers and stats into those equations, and you’ve got a certified geek on your hands.
Let me take this time to tell Newton County that you should stick your chests out a little bit and be proud of the athletic talent that has come through your borders over the years — particularly based on the county’s size. With high school graduation congrats still fresh on our breath, this is always a great time to take a moment and reflect on what student-athletes and former student-athletes are accomplishing.
Last week, just as spring football was wrapping up in the area, another Newton County son was signing his paperwork as a freshly minted member of the local chapter of the NFL club.
Dante Blackmon, a former Eastside standout and Kennesaw State graduate, became the latest Newton County NFL’er when he signed with the Indianapolis Colts after a successful showing in the Colts’ rookie mini-camp.
He makes number six, joining current NFL players Akeem Hunt and Sheldon Rankins, as well as former Newton Rams standout Demetrius McCray who signed a reserve/future deal with the Seahawks in January after being waved by the Jacksonville Jaguars in August 2016.
But Blackmon is doubly special because he is one of the players that, in my estimation, show a strong reflection of the kind of football program that’s been built at Eastside High.
Since its inception in 1996, Eastside has spent much of its time as the county’s smallest public school from a population, facilities and, thusly, classification standpoint. Even after Alcovy came on the scene in 2006 as a Class AAAA school.
Since then, Alcovy has transitioned to Class AAAAAA and Newton plays one peg higher in the state’s largest classification. But the Eagles have shown that bigger is not always automatically best.
I know this comparison can stretch across all sports, but I’m dealing specifically with football here because I have some hard, clad numbers to strengthen the comparison, thanks to the Georgia High School Football Historians website.
When Blackmon signed to the Colts, he became the second Eastside player to make the NFL, joining Sheldon Rankins of the New Orleans Saints. But he’s not the only player from Eastside with some NFL potential.
Antonius Sims, currently at Appalachian State and Shaquille Huff who recently graduated from Middle Tennessee State, both have enough ability, according to Eastside coach Troy Hoff, to perhaps crack an NFL roster sooner rather than later. Huff is still exploring some opportunities.
If that happens, you’re talking about potentially four Eastside players who will adorn NFL rosters. Not bad for the smallest Georgia High School Association school in the county.
But here’s some more stats to show you that the NFL/potential NFL players element of this comparison is not just some sort of fool’s gold when using it to evaluate Eastside football’s strength. Eastside compares very favorably with Newton — the county’s oldest school and county namesake — in terms of producing elite football talent.
Check it out: Obviously Newton has more overall all-state players (41) than Eastside (22), as well as first-teamers (16) to Eastside’s 10. But over the last nine or 10 years, it’s been Eastside that has put forth more all-state talent.
Newton has seen 12 of those 41 players named to all-state teams since 2008 while all of Eastside’s 22 all-staters have come since 2008. Same with the Eagles’ 10 first-team all state performers. But since 2008, Newton has produced just six of their total 16 first-team performers.
And when you zero in on the NFL, while the Rams have four to Eastside’s two, two of Newton’s NFL players (Dale Carter and Jake Reed) found NFL rosters in the early 1990s.
When McCray was drafted in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft to Jacksonville, it ended an 11-year drought of Newton County athletes playing football on the highest level. Hunt quickly followed McCray in 2015 when he signed on with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent. That’s not too far off from Eastside’s NFL duo with Rankins being the 12th pick of the 2016 Draft to New Orleans.
By the way, at that 12th spot in the first round, Rankins holds the designation of having the highest draft status of any of Newton County’s six players. Dale Carter was taken by the Kansas City Chiefs with the 20th pick of the first round in 1992, and Jake Reed went in the third round of the 1991 Draft to the Minnesota Vikings.
Now none of this is to try and suggest that Eastside is a better program or that Newton is inferior or vice versa. It’s just to showcase the fact that sometimes you can’t judge a football program’s success by its size.
Whenever you look at Eastside play, it’s typically going to be smaller than its opponents. The Eagles may not always be the fastest. They may not always pass the eye test. But long time assistant coach Frankie Iverson says that those facts only serve to provide the shoulder chip on an Eastside football player that gives them that extra push, even when that player starts moving on past high school.
“They carry that chip with them,” Iverson said. “It starts in high school when they know that a lot of players are going to be bigger than them, but I can’t really say it’s anything about the program as much as it’s just about these players. They want it, and they keep on wanting it when they go to college or even the NFL.”
If you want to get a good glimpse of that chip in action, just close your eyes and pick from virtually any of the 13 football matchups between Eastside and Newton. Last year’s was an instant classic that ended in a 41-41 tie, and frustrated fans and players who wanted to see overtime.
The GHSA doesn’t permit overtime for non-region games, but you could bet that if it were possible to corral the players from the 2016 Newton and Eastside squads today and put them on the field for one more quarter, they’d jump at the chance.
The Newton-Eastside rivalry is deadlocked at 6-6-1. No team has won more than three in a row. And only three times in the series has a game been decided by less more than two touchdowns.
I’ve said it before that whenever I would watch Eastside play other schools I covered for other publications, I always would wonder what in the world makes them so good, despite not looking overly imposing.
Now, it’s just taken me a little more than seven months to get it. Toughness. Grit. School pride. Couple that with solid, stable coaching from guys like Iverson and now head coach Troy Hoff entering his third season. Both Hoff and Iverson were around for the Rick Hurst years when Hurst, after an 0-10 start to his tenure in 2005, began the turnaround with a 5-5 squad in 2006.
Before Hurst, only two Eastside teams had ever made the playoffs. Since Hurst’s first season, no Eastside team has had a losing record, and the Eagles have only missed postseason play four times.
And fresh off of graduation, it’s time now to watch a new crop of Eagles soar. Guys like Eric Stokes who will step onto the Georgia campus in Athens to contend for a spot in Kirby Smart’s defensive backfield. Or even Josh Sims who will join NCAA Division II National Champion James Madison. Don’t rule out a guy like Garrett Stevens either — a heart and soul kind of linebacker who will play at Birmingham Southern.
There’s no telling where that Eastside chip may take these young men.
Next up? Guys like LaMarius Benson who’s already committed to South Carolina, or Braydon Harper and Taylor Carter will step into the limelight and try to continue to prove that if these Eastside footballers haven’t learned anything else, it’s that a classic Mark Twain saying applies squarely to them.
Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in a fight, but it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And if Eastside football were in the market for a mission statement, I couldn’t think of another that more aptly fits.
Gabriel Stovall is the Sports Editor for The Covington News. He can be reached for story tips and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1, as well as our sports twitter page @CovNewsSports.