No salt tablets were distributed Friday night for the opening football practice at C.A. Johnson High School. Otherwise, an observer could easily believe he was watching a practice from the early 1960s.
C.A. Johnson conducts its football business on the scattered blades of grass that make up the baseball diamonds outfield. A couple of old blocking sleds came out of summer storage for the occasion. Head coach Jerry Jackson, who will turn 60 by seasons end, wears a whistle around his neck and invites just about any visitor onto the field to come look over his shoulder and ask questions.
This is old-school, for sure, all the way down to the primary purpose for C.A. Johnson to field a football team at the lowest level Class A of the South Carolina High School League. Instead of a football factory, Jackson and his school preside over a season-long character clinic.
Of the 20 players who showed for the first practice, 16 are juniors and seniors who already have been indoctrinated to Jacksons ways. They have learned the finer points of running pass patterns and the intricacies of playing a two-deep zone. More importantly, they have accepted their roles in a family where coaches play the part of father figures and teammates become the strongest of brothers.
Those team leaders will be expected to show the way when newcomers probably another 10 to 15 freshmen and sophomores join the club once school classes begin.
Its not so hard when youve got 14 to 15 guys who can help (teach) and set examples, Jackson says. Its not like pulling teeth without anesthetic. Its still pulling teeth, but youve got a little anesthetic.
Jackson is entering his 28th season of coaching high school football, his 10th as the head man at C.A. Johnson. He enjoys the luxury of working for an administration that does not judge his performance on wins and losses, but rather on how many players he can keep off the streets and in the classrooms.
Jacksons C.A. Johnson teams have won 26 games over the years while losing 65. His only winning season came in 2009 when the Green Hornets won seven of 11 games. Otherwise, 4-6 was a high-water mark.
Yet even after a 2-9 record a year ago that featured a rare playoff appearance, Jacksons standing at the school remained solid thanks to an undefeated record off the field. Every one of C.A. Johnsons six senior football players earned a diploma, no small feat at a school where only 53 percent of its students accomplish that, according to the 2012 South Carolina Annual School Report Card.
Of the six graduates, Michael Watts will attend Midlands Tech this fall and Tarik Pryor will be a walk-on candidate for the S.C. State football team. Jackson believes all eight of his current seniors also will earn diplomas, and two are on the radar of NCAA Division I-A football programs.
Jackson is pinching himself with excitement over the prospect of fielding two of the states top athletes in seniors Michael Knox and Peter Goodman. Both will play wide receiver in C.A. Johnsons spread-and-throw attack.
Knox operated a season ago out of the quarterback position where he could best utilize his strong arm and fleet feet. Recognizing that Knox would not be a quarterback in college, Jackson has decided to move him to a position where he can get the most notice by college scouts. Goodman, a standout basketball player as well, has the size and speed to be a college receiver.
That means Jackson will slide junior Charles Mallory under center. An understudy to Knox a season ago, Mallory possesses the necessary skills to lead the Green Hornets. He helped guide C.A. Johnson to a fifth-place finish the programs highest ever in a summer seven-on-seven tournament in Sumter.
All of which has Jackson and his coaching staff thinking bigger than usual as this season approaches.
I take one game at a time. I dont worry about the opponents. I worry about us, Jackson says. I tell the team, If we do A, B, C and D, then the win will be in our grasp. If we do that one game at a time, I think we can go undefeated.
Is that realistic? I dont know.
Probably not. A more realistic goal would be for Jackson to again mold a team into a band of brothers who take pride in entering and exiting the field arm in arm, and for the seniors to again all earn diplomas. That, after all, is what C.A. Johnson football is all about.