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STOVALL: Long live Far East Talent and the media day platform that displays it
Media Day
Assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Skelton, far right, introduces six of Newton’s Class of 2020 along with assistant coach Tommy Gregory. From left, Newton’s players: Ronald Graves (21), Josh Hardeman (9), Tyon Bigby (25), Neal Howard (10), Robert Lewis (1) and Chris Black (65). Skelton and Gregory stood in for first-year head coach Camiel Grant, Jr. who was unable to be in attendance. The Rams boast some of the area's most highly recruited talent ahead of the 2019 season. - photo by Sydney Chacon

I hope I didn’t make anyone sick last Tuesday. 

If you were at last week's second annual East Metro Atlanta Football Media Day, pardon me if I didn’t shake your hand long, or appeared a bit standoffish. I was trying to stay away from being in too close of contact. 

Then again, pardon me for not doing that great of job of staying away because the post media day thermometer suggested I probably should’ve stayed home. 

I woke up on Tuesday morning, about five hours from the kickoff of watching year two of The Covington News and Walton Tribune’s joint brainchild, aka East Metro Atlanta Football Media Day, feeling like I had a fever. Then about five hours after the event was over, the thermometer confirmed it. 

A temperature of 102.4. Should I have stayed home? Probably. If I knew exactly what that temp was when I woke up that morning, would I have stayed home? 

Probably not. 

Why? Because few things bring me greater joy than seeing a plan and a vision come together. As I’ve often stated, when I arrived on this East Metro scene almost three years ago, I came here void of expectations. With exception of a couple of run-ins with Eastside football and a casual observance of Newton boys basketball one year at the state basketball finals shindig in Macon, I knew relatively nothing about the kind of athletic talent this side of the metro had to offer. 

I can pinpoint the exact moment when that all started to change. 

It was my first day on the job. I’d just finished up all my new hire paperwork, and without someone else handing me an assignment for the first time as a full time newspaper employee, I grabbed my camera and cell phone and beat the pavement. 

First place I went was Newton High School, to catch a few images of football practice. 

It was late October — still felt like Indian summer. Newton was making a playoff push. In fact, all three GHSA schools in the county were still in the postseason hunt. I didn’t really come out to practice that day with a story in mind. Just wanted to see what was out here. 

I learned quickly that in this business, the best way to make friends with a high school athlete is to appeal to that hint of vanity most of them have — at least the college-bound ones, anyway. That means, snag a photo. Record a video. Figure out what they call themselves on social media, namely Twitter and Instagram, and share away. 

Do it a few times, and you’ve made a new high school athlete friend. This was the case on that mid-October 2016 evening during fall break. I saw a couple of athletes who looked like “dudes.” One of them lined up in a defensive back position. 

Sports reporter instincts told me to take a couple of quick shots, and then align my cell phone’s video camera to capture his every move. And boy am I glad I did. 

During a particular play from scrimmage at this practice, once the ball was snapped and a pass was thrown, this young man broke to the ball like a scavenger swooping in on road kill. In one motion, he snagged what actually was a decently thrown ball to a Newton receiver, and raced the other way toward the opposite end zone. 

He didn’t stop, though. After scoring, he kept running, and so did his defensive teammates. They dog-piled him, whooping and hollering and celebrating his next-level athleticism. Even a couple of coaches got in on it too. 

I walked up to one of the coaches who managed to keep away from the fracas. “Hey, what’s that kid’s name? The one who just caught the interception,” I asked. 

“Oh, him? That’s Jaquan Henderson,” he replied. 

Perfect. That’s all I needed to know to find him and tag him on Twitter. About an hour and 65 retweets later, I realized what most of you in Newton County already knew. 

The Far East’s got some talent. 

Henderson was committed to Tennessee at the time, so later that day, not only did I gain Henderson as a Twitter follower, but about a dozen Vols fans who probably promptly unfollowed me once Henderson flipped to Georgia Tech. 

For Newton County athletes, it was a tweet that served them notice that there was a new sports editor in town, dedicated to finding ways to shine a light on as many of them as possible, so others can see what I saw. 

For me, Henderson was simply the first in a long, continuous line of Newton County/Covington athletes that continue proving me right when I say that this is one of the most slept on talent hotbeds — for its size — in the state of Georgia. 

So fast forward to Tuesday, and why I brought my tired, feverish body out to Porter Performing Arts Center. It’s because watching this media day continue to take shape and evolve, is truly a dream come true and a vision realized. 

To work together with our sister paper and sports editor to bring an event to this area that accentuates what makes this area so awesome is part of what makes what I do as your sports editor a dream job. 

This media day is my biggest Covington News baby, and to watch it grow for a second year is akin to beaming with pride as you look on at your toddler child learning how to go from crawling to walking. 

Last year’s inaugural event was great, but we knew it could stand to be improved. So we listened to our coaches and athletic directors and responded with a much more streamlined product this year. And guess what? Just like I said at the end of last year’s event, I’m already dreaming up ways to see how to push the envelope for next year.

Why? Honestly, it isn’t because of me at all, except that I get joy in seeing other people start to take note of the kind of student-athlete greatness that resides here. I can’t wait to watch some of these young gridiron warriors make big plays for big time colleges in the future.

 I can’t wait to be able to point to the TV one Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the next few years and say, “Hey, I knew that kid was going to be special when I chatted with him during our football media day. 

So yeah, I felt like crap last Tuesday. Thankfully, we’ve been blessed with a solid team of emerging sports journalists and media professionals — along with Tribune sports editor Brett Fowler — who carried things along masterfully. Their presence ensured that I didn’t have to do much this year. 

But guess what? Even if they weren’t there, I’d have found a way to push through it, because seeing our local athletes shine on bigger stages is something this area needs and deserves. And it’s a tremendous honor to be able to be a small part in providing that platform for them to stand upon. 

So no, this media day isn’t going away anytime soon (although I hope my fever doesn’t come back with it next year). At least not as long as Brett and I are around. And yes, expect it to get even bigger and better each year as more people come to find out what I discovered back in October 2016. 

Far East Talent is real, and a force to be reckoned with. 

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