Editor's note: Each August, Anniston Star Sports Writer Joe Medley visits every Calhoun County school’s football practice before the season starts. It’s November 2019, and a record five of 12 football-playing schools in the county have made the semifinals. Game for another round of Travelin’? Check The Anniston Star and annistonstar.com each day for Joe’s reports leading to Friday’s semifinal games.
ANNISTON — Anniston will play a big football game Friday. A really big football game.
If the Bulldogs win their first state semifinal game since 2011, they play their first state final since 1994. It only gets one game bigger, but the game at Jacksonville on Friday is bigger than football for Anniston.
It goes to the heart of a deep-seated frustration for so many Anniston-loving, good people who try to succeed at doing good for the school many more days than not.
They could scream it to the heavens, but then the barrage of spicy city politics and see-there headlines, which feed the worst that some from other parts of Calhoun County prefer to believe, shouts it back into their mouths.
So, Anniston folks need something like their football team to shout it for them. The team played its way onto the history train, joining four other semifinalists from a county that previously never had more than two in a single season.
It’s Oxford, Wellborn, Jacksonville, Piedmont and, yes, Anniston in the county’s grand showcase of football, the great cultural bridge. Maybe the greatest bridge in our sometimes-frayed collection of Calhoun County communities.
What wants to be said comes out right after second-year coach Rico White closes his eyes, leans his head back and veers slightly from a question about what winning Friday’s game could mean.
“I’m happy for Anniston,” White said. “Anniston is a town that’s been through a lot. We’ve been labeled, stereotyped and all of that.
“To have something good going on, that’s a plus.”
That’s the backdrop for the team in cardinal, black, white or gray, depending on the uniform combination.
They’re Anniston kids. Yes, a quartet transferred from other schools and became major producers for this team, but they’re Anniston kids now. The rest include the 16 starters who returned from last season.
Many played as underclassmen and know what records like 2-8 and 3-7 feel like. They know what a coaching change feels like, how it feels to lose one coach they trusted and learn to trust another one.
They learn from Anniston teachers on weekdays. They practice for Anniston coaches on weekday afternoons and play for them on Friday nights.
Before these Anniston kids load in a bus Friday, they’ll walk by a mannequin in their locker room. He’s called “Bulldog,” the figure of a tall, lean football player modeling a No. 90 Anniston uniform, gray-on-gray combination with a new-this-season black helmet.
He stands on a platform with a placard that reads, “Bring your ‘A’ game.” The double-entendre ‘A’ injects the school’s first initial into the popular sports saying, and Anniston players touch him before leaving the locker room to get centered on football.
The best they can do for their school and community is focus on football. It’s their best chance to succeed, but they don’t exist in a vacuum.
They exist in surroundings where lots of people care for them and try their best, against odds sometimes, to bring positives to their lives. They know what anybody who spends time there knows … that people are people, and good ones surround them.
They exist in a county where some only know them by reputation, perceptions shaped mostly by perceivers and other things Anniston kids don’t control. Too many outsiders see an Anniston kid’s positives as exceptions.
If only we could desegregate truth.
Friday, Anniston kids will play for each other and their coaches first, their community a close second. They’ll play deep into November and under Friday night lights, perhaps the most forgiving and forgetting lights we know here, outside of a church sanctuary.
“The football team, we do it because we love football,” White said, “but our community, they love us. They love winning, and they deserve this, so we’re going to do everything we can do for the community.”