Cars are pulling into the parking lot and people are filing through a ticket gate and into a stadium to take their seats.
In one row, a grandfather and a father sit next to each other, watching as the grandson/son warms up on the field. A proud mother takes pictures of her daughter, who made the cheerleading team this year.
Football is coming back.
Today, Aug. 1, high school teams can officially meet for their first practices, beginning another year in the rich tradition that is Calhoun County high school football.
Trying to explain to outsiders why football is so important in the county’s communities can be complicated. There isn’t just one reason why towns shut down on Friday nights.
Mike Naugher, who has been filming football for Piedmont High School since 1982, explains that Calhoun County is essentially just a group of small towns close together.
“Everybody’s interested in what their children are doing,” he said. “It’s something to do on Friday nights when we don’t have a lot going on here.”
David Parker, creator of the Alabama High School Football Historical Society, provides another theory.
“It goes back to the roots, you know,” Parker said. “You go to a game and you know everyone — you went to school with them or played with them. It’s not like that in a bigger city with more transition.”
Parker spent more than 25 years researching records, histories and player stats and compiled them on a website, where he still encourages people to contribute missing information.
Alexandria head coach Frank Tucker and his Valley Cubs know all about roots. At any game in Alexandria, you can see generations of football players in the stands. Take, for example, senior lineman Chance Heath. His stepfather was a Valley Cub, and now he watches Heath take the field in the same colors. Senior wide receiver Tyler Burr said Tucker reminds the players every game to honor their jerseys because there are men in the stands that once wore the same number.
But family history isn’t the only thing that makes a community take pride in its team.
At Weaver High School, where, head coach Daryl Hamby said, there are a lot of single-parent families, the community also supports the football team.
“I can see the strides that have been made and the community is really happy about it,” Hamby said. “And that’s who we play for — we want the community to be proud of our kids, not only just on the field but how they carry themselves off the field is a thing we stress also.”
Hamby said his staff helps single parents try to raise the kids the right way. Tucker agreed.
“Coach Ginn said ‘If all I’m doing is teaching you football, then I’m not doing my job,’” said Tucker, referring to his deceased predecessor at Alexandria, Larry Ginn. “And it is, I think, our job as coaches is to mentor these young men who may not have a father at home. I think that’s a bigger calling.”
That sentiment is echoed across the county at Piedmont where head coach Steve Smith is said to be a strong role model.
Naugher said Smith is a Christian man who provides a stable environment.
“Kids that never would have finished school, they keep them in school,” Naugher said. “Kids that would’ve never gone to college are getting to go to college. A high school coach is like a father figure.”
Naugher said he and Smith spend 10 to 15 days preparing highlight tapes for kids who are prospects and send them out all over the Southeast and even across the country.
The Piedmont Bulldogs won the Class 3A state championship in 2009, and this season they’re upping the ante with a new stadium full of amenities. According to Parker, small towns are at an advantage for fundraising because of their alumni support. Parker said since smaller towns see less transition, the alumni generally remain in the area and support their teams. Larger towns have more people move in and out of the area, so, Parker said, it is more difficult for them to raise money as quickly.
Naugher said the Bulldogs’ booster club and local businesses excel in fundraising.
“We have businesses that probably can’t afford to help as much as they do,” he said. “They’re a big part of our community.”
Businesses support teams in many ways, from donating cups for the games to feeding the players during the year, something Naugher said you don’t see as much of in a bigger community.
Weaver football players can see how much their community backs them as well. Ask any player, and they can provide examples.
Jeffrey Campbell, Weaver senior center and linebacker, said the community helps the Bearcats out, so in return team members help the community when it needs them. Teammate Brandell Massey, junior fullback, said the community cooks out for the team and helps with fundraising. Brennan Ledbetter, a senior transfer from South Carolina, said he found a new sense of support at Weaver.
“Weaver football is just exciting,” he said. “At my old school it was exciting, but they’re into it down here. The games are a lot louder. If you make a big play, it gets crazy out there.”
Naugher said he hopes high school football remains rich in its traditions and stays away from consolidation.
“These little bitty communities would dry up because you’d have nothing to do,” he said. “You’d lose the camaraderie you’ve got with everyone in the community.”
Calhoun County doesn’t have to worry about anything changing too soon; this is just day one of a brand new season of football.