GREENVILLE — It was Friday night in the small-town South, in that time of year when map specks are made large by local teens in shoulder pads and helmets.
This was not just any game night. Little Greenville, population 946, had awakened to find itself the subject of the single most compelling story in all the Georgia high school football playoffs.
You could search from the big city of Atlanta to the tradition-rich flatlands of Valdosta and not find a team any more successful. What’s better than perfect? And the Class A Greenville Patriots were unbeaten.
Nor would you find a more emotional rallying point than Greenville’s head coach, just 38 and struggling with the unrelenting physical erosion of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“Coach [Jeremy] Williams has us fired up,” said Hannah Flynn, as she set out place mats and silverware in advance of the Patriots pre-game dinner. These last couple of weeks, local churches had taken to feeding the boys three hours before kickoff, and it was Greenville United Methodist’s turn this day.
Helping to serve the chicken alfredo, pole beans and cranberry bread was Elizabeth Andrews Duncan, 85, Greenville High Class of ’41. She worked the room, hugging players, casting a gracious smile on each, serving as honorary great-grandmother.
Doing the guest speaking was a running back from the last state championship Greenville High team, in 1984.
A postmaster and preacher living in Atlanta now, Sandy Strozier came home to inspire the boys: “When I tell people I’m from Greenville, they always ask, ‘Is that Greenville, South Carolina?’ Or, ‘Greensboro, Georgia?’ Well, you’re helping to put Greenville back on the map!”
These volunteers had seen much change in their time.
Greenville High up and moved, from the town center to a couple of miles out, near the county jail. The school system fractured, the ones who could afford it going to the private Flint River Academy, others split between Greenville and Manchester, another public high school in Meriwether County. Greenville High is one of the state’s smallest, with a student population of less than 400.
In the last three years, jobs have become increasingly difficult to find in and around Greenville. The Lanier Clothing Co. closed, eliminating 200 jobs. A large lumber yard relocated to Alabama, taking another 100-plus jobs. Unemployment in Meriwether County is at 13.2 percent, 3 percentage points above the state average.
The town’s mayor, James Bray, commutes 65 miles north to Atlanta for his job as a MARTA station manager. The head of the Greenville High football booster club, Zeke Parks, works at the Kia plant in West Point and lives 30 minutes away from Greenville in LaGrange. They must work hard to keep connections with their hometown.
The town’s sense of itself has been shaken. That extended to the football team from the namesake high school, where support had ebbed during a series of mundane seasons since that last state title in 1984.
Interest in this Greenville team has been building slowly this season, behind a defensive-minded bunch that has strung together six shutouts in 11 games, including a 25-0 victory over Pelham in Friday’s first playoff foray. About 1,200 fans from around the Greenville area showed up for that one, the second-largest crowd of the season.
“I think we’re bringing back Greenville pride,” said the team’s senior linebacker, Joshua Hood.
“I think [the support] is getting better. I’d like it to be more,” said Williams, in his eighth season as head coach.
Diagnosed in 2008 with the terminal disease, Williams has continued to work, even as his body has continued to wither.
Living 20 miles away near Pine Mountain, Williams connected emotionally with the Greenville townsfolk last season during a series of testimonies at local churches.
The community, in turn, became invested in him when it raised $3,000 to buy the golf cart he needs to ferry him down a steep hill from field house to field and around to the various practice stations.
Inescapable is the added urgency Williams’ condition has granted this season. “Everyone looks up to Coach,” said the Patriots’ huge — 6-6, 300-pound — lineman, Kenarious Gates. “We want to win it all for him. He deserves it.”
And just as central to this season is the example Williams has provided for those who have been brought back to the fold of Greenville football. Parks summons one thought when darkness falls early and he still has miles to drive to a Booster Club meeting — when it would be so much easier just to turn for home: Coach.
“You see him doing all these things and it inspires you.”
The mayor looks at a high school football team as another indicator of a small town’s comeback. “That is a great story. People know that; everyone is rallying around the team. Things are getting better in Greenville,” Bray said.
There is a neighborhood block grant on the way to fix up some dilapidated homes, he said. The old town square is due for a facelift, thanks to another grant. He believes more jobs are on the way.
Such factors as the economy and demographics are fickle.
What Greenville can count on is that there is another football game Friday night, at home against 9-2 Wilcox County.
This time it’s the Baptists who will feed the team before the game. “And those ladies are really getting into it,” said Gerald Fowler, Williams’ friend and the football team’s chaplain. “They’re even going to the game — and they’ve never been to a Greenville High game before.”
The local bank has ordered Greenville High Patriots T-shirts for all its employees to wear Friday.
A small town’s bandwagon is officially rolling.
“Good. For a long time the wagon has been kind of empty,” noted Virginia Hill, funeral parlor owner and team booster.
It is an irresistible ride, hitched to an unbeaten team and an unbowed coach.