Driving around town in Dillon on sunny afternoons most often brings a smile to the face of football coach Jackie Hayes.
He knows many of the little boys he passes in front yards and on playgrounds, practicing their stiff-arms and three-point stances, are not pretending to be National Football League stars.
“A lot of them you’ll hear them say, ‘I’m Kwinton Smith.’ Or ‘I’m Jabo (Lee).’ They are emulating our players and it’s interesting to watch and great to see,” said Hayes, long-time head coach of the Dillon High Wildcats.
The Wildcats have been atop Class 2A football for several years, with two state titles in three appearances in the past four years. Each fall, Dillon’s football program has turned out all-star players, sending many to college with football scholarships. So it is not surprising that, from a young age, the boys in Dillon associate Wildcat football with success.
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“I think they do look at it as an opportunity to get out there and be successful, they see guys doing it every year,” Hayes said.
Kwinton Smith, a Shrine Bowl receiver headed for South Carolina, said the economy has heightened that sense. In Dillon, nearly 28.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty level and unemployment is at 14.2 percent. For the players, football is an open door.
“It’s gotten that way around here,” Smith said. “The kids feel like opportunities here are limited and, if football can be a way out, they will go after it.”
But it might be more than that.
“We look at football a different way. Football here is life,” said Smith, who started out a baseball player. “That’s what this town is all about. When I was growing up, that’s all you hear about is Dillon football. They train you to play football from a young age.”
For many of the boys of Dillon, such as center Bryce King, playing in a game for the Wildcats is a dream-come-true experience, he said.
That is why they give it their all.
Nothing less is expected or accepted of them, said junior linebacker Joe Blue.
“Everything we do here is at a high level,” said Blue. “We don’t want anything in the middle. Our coaches always tell us to reach for the highest level. Do the most we can. Be wide open.”
That coaching, King said, is what turns boys like him into men.
“I was always going to play football, just because of my size,” said the 6-foot-4, 290 pound King.
“When I got here I was big, but I was weak, and they helped me be strong,” said King, who is being recruited by a dozen Division I schools.
Hayes regards his position as head football coach in Dillon a “tremendous honor.” He said his staff aims to unlock potential through high expectations — every year they are aiming to be champions.
“Every year our goal is the same no matter who is on the team, and as long as I’m there, that’s what it’s going to be,” Hayes said.
He believes every player on his team can be a champion, and the Wildcats’ staff makes sure the players believe that, too.
“We try to teach them to be better than the guy ahead of them, so when it’s their turn, they will be ready,” Hayes said.
Whether they are starting or spending much of their time on the sidelines, Hayes and his staff work to be sure that the Dillon Wildcats become upstanding young men.
“The most important thing that’s happened since I’ve been part of this football team is I learned how to live and do the right things,” King said.
Blue said he does not know what his future would hold if he had not been part of the Wildcats football team.
Whatever he does after football, he will do it well, Blue said.
That is what Dillon is all about.