Dec. 9 began like any other day for Tucker High School’s football team. Players and coaches went to school early in the morning, but 16 hours later the team could claim a distinction no other team in school history could claim.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Dec. 9, the Tigers had capped the school’s first undefeated season (15-0) and claimed its second state football championship in four years by beating Lovejoy 22-7 for the Class AAAA title.
Here is a look at what the day was like, from the pregame meeting at 4:30 p.m. at the school to the bus ride back to Tucker after midnight.
Players, coaches and support staff walked from the high school down Main Street to Matthews Cafeteria for the pregame meal. After eating, it was back to the school to get ready to play for a state championship.
Tucker has consistently advanced to the playoffs since the late 1980s. In the past five seasons under coach Franklin Stephens the Tigers have advanced at least to the state semifinals four times. Tucker won a state title in 2008, Stephens’ second season.
4:44 p.m., Time to focus
The entire team crams into a classroom on the second floor of the gym. The noise is deafening before Stephens walks in. His arrival is met with a few “sshhhhhh” sounds. It takes a quick second before all eyes are focused on the head coach. His words are measured, his message simple.
“We finally got to the opportunity we want,” Stephens tells his team. “This is a big-time growing experience. We get to determine what transpires. I could just walk away and say ‘have at it.’ You prepared for it. You’ve got to go out and get it done.”
After a brief reminder about fundamentals, Stephens leaves his team with the motivation that would carry it through the next several hours.
“There is no tomorrow, guys,” he said calmly. “No pressure. The only thing about tonight is fun. As a senior, you’ve done everything you could do. We border on the line of perfect. We need to let the state know what we’re about.
“If the person next to you fails, make him be successful,” Stephens said. “If you get knocked down, get back up. Persevere out there. When we get back here and walk into the locker room, we need to be stamped state champions.”
In addition to the pep talk, two other points are driven home—“Don’t OD on Gatorade … Keep you emotions intact.” He repeats both for effect.
5:10 p.m., Escorted to the Dome
With several DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office patrol cars leading the way, the caravan of five buses makes its way down to the Georgia Dome. As the varsity players settle into their seats, a team manager carrying a water bottle breaks the silence.
“OK, you know the drill,” she says.
“What’s that?” senior Michael Young asks.
“That’s nasty,” Young replies, but grabs the bottle and takes a swig anyway, then passes it on.
As the buses drive down Main Street, the occupants notice several groups of fans lining the sidewalk, cheering and waving.
For most of the ride, there is quietness. There are more iPods in use than at the mall Apple store. Some of the music being listened to: Young, 2 Chainz, Slangin’ Birds; senior Nick Collins, Drake, Make Me Proud; 10-year-old Shawn Thurston, son of assistant coach Eric Thurston, Eminem.
The police escort provides a bit of excitement as the lead car cuts off traffic during rush hour on I-285 to allow the procession of buses to ease into the left lane.
Young reflects on his journey during the bus ride: “It’s a crazy feeling. This is the last time I’m going to put this jersey on. I’m a third-year starter and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I’m tired of waiting.”
7:47 p.m., Preparing for battle
Senior linebacker Jacob Sealand leads the Tigers onto the field for pregame warm-ups. Sealand didn’t play as a freshman on the 2008 state championship team. One former player who did, however, is on the sidelines. Jonathan Davis, a linebacker at Central Florida, is supporting his alma mater and greets the team as they file onto the field.
The Tigers go back into the locker room, then make a dramatic entrance onto the field just before game time. The entire team locks arms and walks toward the middle of the field, with the seniors leading the way.
The making of a champion
From the opening kickoff, it’s obvious that Tucker is the better team on this night. The defense is not satisfied just making tackles. Time and time again Tiger defenders drive their opponent into the turf with a force that can be felt by everyone watching.
The first quarter ends with Tucker leading 6-0 after a 35-yard Jordan Landry touchdown run. A safety and a 38-yard touchdown run by Yusuf Minor in a one-minute span during the second quarter stakes Tucker to a 15-0 halftime lead. Lovejoy, on the other hand, has not made a first down.
Tucker scores on its first possession of the second half, then the defense comes up with two interceptions as the third quarter expires with Tucker in control 22-0.
Lovejoy finally gets on the scoreboard with a touchdown midway through the final quarter.
10:53 p.m., It’s official
Tucker made one final defensive stand in the final minute. Senior linebacker Josh Dawson walks off the field and is given a bear hug by Stephens. A few seconds later it’s official—Tucker is the 2011 Class AAAA state football champion.
After a few minutes celebrating on the field, the players turn their attention to the sidelines. One by one, they stand on benches and tables to celebrate with parents, students and other fans, who are serenading the team from their seats with chants of “Tuck-er, Tuck-er.”
As Dawson walks back to the locker room, he utters, “perfect season, man. Perfect season.”
11:20 p.m., Locker room celebration
Players dance under a steady spray of Gatorade and water, but no one seems to care. The scene is captured on video and with photos by players and staff. After several minutes, the celebration dies down and the players prepare to board the bus for the ride home.
But as they file out of the locker room, a coach reminds the state champions to do one more thing before they leave.
“Back inside,” the coach says. “Start picking up cups and trash. Let’s go.”
The coaching staff poses for a few photos before everyone breaks for the bus.
The celebration continues on the buses. As the caravan gets closer to the school, Sealand lets his teammates know what’s in store. “Hey, the school is already full,” he says after checking his phone.
When the buses pull into the parking lot of the high school after 12:30 a.m., hundreds of fans are there to greet the team. Parents, students and fans cheer as the team exits the buses, some get close enough to offer hugs and handshakes. The shouts of encouragement continue as the team makes its way down the hill to the locker room.
More than eight hours after Stephens made the challenge to his team, it returned with a trophy and a championship.