As if time was flashing forward and backward 20 years, Rodney Bivens stood on Anniston High’s Lott-Mosby Stadium Field on Saturday, at the head of a huddle of players he coached to a state championship in 1994.
About a dozen ’94 players — including Jevaris Johnson, Fred Brown and Quinton Caver — had just played in a flag football game associated with their reunion, and, well, players huddle around their coach after a game. It’s just what they do.
Like any such huddle, there was business to address. They discussed particulars surrounding their banquet later Saturday.
Then there was a theme, and the ’94 Anniston team’s theme hasn’t changed. Do it like “family,” Bivens told his former players. They all gave knowing nods.
The 1994 Anniston team started becoming a champion the moment it became a family, and the family was back in town this weekend. The ’94 Bulldogs were back to remember how they started 1-2, with losses to Wellborn and Woodlawn, then won 12 games in a row en route to a Class 6A championship, which stands as the school’s most recent state title in football.
They didn’t just celebrate among themselves. Organizers Montressa Kirby, Phillip Keith and Brown invited former players and coaches across the years to join them for Friday night’s social and Saturday’s flag football game and banquet.
Former Anniston coach Berry Halladay, who led Anniston’s 1989 title team with Bivens as his defensive coordinator, was on hand. Players from the ’89 team played in Saturday’s flag football game.
Kevin Johnson, a standout from the ’92 team, made a falling-back circus catch and caught a touchdown pass for the team in black jerseys.
More recent players like Damien Dorsey (Class of ’98), who played collegiately at Louisville, scored on an interception return for the white team. Denzel Roberts (2012) nearly took an interception from goal line to goal line for the black team but stepped out of bounds.
Jevaris Johnson, who went on to play tight end for Georgia after his Anniston days, caught a touchdown pass from Darius Truss, splitting the black-team defense on an inside slant pattern.
One of Jevaris Johnson’s sons, Allon, wearing No. 15 in white, caught a short pass and juked his way through traffic for a touchdown, and the white team won 21-14.
Current Anniston coach Eddie Bullock manned the running clock from the press box. Former assistant coaches Paul Farlow, Brenard Howard and Tony Ball were there. Family members watched from the visiting grandstand and between the fence and field house.
Not all “family” members could attend. Kirby had to speak at a funeral Saturday and missed the flag football game, though he attended Friday’s social and Saturday night’s banquet at the Saks Community Center.
“Some family members are no longer with us,” Jevaris Johnson said during the postgame huddle with Bivens and former teammates.
But family they will always be.
That sense started to develop when ’94 players were scout teamers for the ’92 team, which went 12-1. The sense of family grew as members of Anniston’s ’94 team slept overnight in the field house during two-a-days, rather than be late for Bivens’ 5 a.m. practices.
But families need to reconnect sometimes, and the ’94 Anniston team found itself in that spot the Sunday after a 21-17 loss to Woodlawn. What normally would have been a light day turned into a family meeting, speaking of minds and full-pad practice.
“We were right out here, about the 12-yard line,” Bivens said. “We just told them, ‘Guys, we’re going to do it our way. We can’t do it like any other team. We’ve got to create our own identity. We’ve got to know who we are, and we’ve got to do it our way. The old way is no good.’”
Players recalled team leaders like Kirby speaking.
“It was heart-felt,” Jevaris Johnson said. “A couple of guys after that Woodlawn loss, they were very vocal.
“It wasn’t as much coaches as it was players. Those guys just basically said, ‘We’re tired of losing. We’re too talented to be doing this.’”
Jevaris Johnson said a sense of rivalry had developed between the offense and defense through daily practice clashes. It all went away after that Sunday team meeting and practice.
Brown said the Bulldogs had become “the most arrogant 1-2 team in the world” and needed that team meeting.
“Everybody let everything out, and, at that point, it was like, get it off your chest and let’s go play,” he said. “It was the frustration of starting 1-2. It was almost like we knew we were going to be state champs.
“Once we got hit in the mouth going 1-2, it was like, ‘Whoa, where do we go from here?’”
History shows where the Bulldogs went from there and why.
After getting behind early against Huffman, Anniston won 27-12. Then came a 22-0 victory over J.O. Johnson and a 23-7 victory at Benjamin Russell that some team members see as the jelling point.
After Bivens made the unusual call to take the ball instead of deferring, Roderick Burke ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Ben Russell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Brown scored.
“That was a top five team,” Brown said. “After that, confidence built, camaraderie came around. It was really a good season.”
The Bulldogs beat Butler, Pell City and Tuscaloosa County before taking down Talladega in the regular-season finale, a game some players considered revenge.
“Talladega had given us a hard time the previous season, showed us up a little bit,” Jevaris Johnson said, “and we just handled them like an old newspaper.”
The playoffs featured victories over Shaw (14-6), Jeff Davis (21-7), Central Phenix City (34-7), Northview (17-10) and Shades Valley (16-14) in the final.
Bivens he took in the moment, standing on Legion Field as the coach of a 6A state champion.
“It was very much satisfying because of the struggles that we had,” he said. “Being 1-2 at that particular time, and a lot of people had given up on us, given up on the team. They didn’t think we had what it took to win it.
“We took a lot of heat and a lot of criticism but bounced back and turned it around and won 12 straight games. That was the satisfying part of it. We knew we were a state-championship team, but just to see the guys come together.”
The ’94 Bulldogs still feel together.
“We were a family, first of all,” said Caver, who went to play for Arkansas and in the NFL. “That got us through those first couple of losses in the season, sticking together and playing as a team.
“We were talking about this last night. These are memories you’re going to have for the rest of your life. I’ve never had this experience like I had with Anniston High anywhere else. Even playing college, professionally, there was just something about being home and playing with your friends that you grew up with that’s totally different.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.