Stephenson High School didn’t win the state championship in football. It won something bigger.
Twenty-nine of 32 Stephenson seniors – 29! – signed with college football programs on Wednesday. The 29th signee was the big star, the kid who’s going places. Although he had secretly committed last week, defensive tackle Michael Thornton kept up the suspense till the last: Would he go with Miami or Penn State or Georgia? The applause was thunderous when Thornton pulled out a UGA cap.
Then they called the name of a guy you probably haven’t heard of, and the applause thundered again. But assistant coach Corey Johnson wouldn’t even come out of the hallway off to the side of the auditorium to accept the ovation.
“It’s all about the kids … it’s their time,” Johnson would say later.
But it was his time, too. The longtime assistant -- a volunteer at Stephenson for seven years -- had spent much of his year on a personal quest: to send as many Stephenson players to college programs as he could. The result was one of the largest signing classes in state history. Eight of the 29 are going to major-college programs.
"I think it's just awesome," said Carla Sanders. Her son, tailback Raymond Sanders, was one of three Stephenson players that signed with Kentucky.
"This is bigger than a state championship to me. Of course, we'd love to have championship rings on our kids' fingers. But you can only talk about what you did in high school for so long. Your college education lasts forever. This is ... changing lives."
Before this year, the largest signing class at Stephenson had been 13, in 2006. (Two of those players -- Florida's Jermaine Cunningham and LSU's Perry Riley -- are top prospects for this year's NFL draft.)
How did this Stone Mountain high school get so many kids the opportunity to play college football? What was the secret?
Parents, players and football staff at Stephenson huddled. The fiercely determined Johnson called the signals.
"We did something different this year," head coach Ron Gartrell said. "We knew we had a number of kids who were good enough to play in college … I used to handle recruiting all by myself. But for one person, that's quite a bit. So I got some help with it."
Gartrell, who teaches a full load of classes and orchestrated the team's football strategy, appointed Johnson as the team's recruiting coach: He was in charge of communications between the players and colleges.
The project kicked off shortly after last year's signing ceremony, when Stephenson sent eight players to colleges. Johnson and fellow Stephenson assistant Rodrick Clark scheduled a couple of meetings with the rising seniors.
"We laid down the rules," Johnson said. "If they had any hopes of playing in college, we told them what we expected them to do as students, and also as football players."
Next: meet the parents. The coaches had group and individual sessions with families. They explained that not every player was talented enough to play in the SEC or ACC, but that they would try to find each senior somewhere to play in college.
They reviewed transcripts and made sure the players took the proper college prep classes and signed up for SAT and ACT tests.
"When you qualify early, it heavily increases your chances of playing college football," Gartrell said.
Stephenson also gave its prospects lessons in marketing, teaching them how to make their own "player packets," consisting of a highlight DVD, academic transcript and resume-type profile of personal information and interests to send to the colleges. Johnson left it up to the players to mail off the packets.
Because so many of the seniors were first-year starters, Stephenson updated its Web site each week with new player clips for college scouts to review. Johnson had the cell numbers and email addresses of more than 700 college coaches, and estimates he contacted some of them two to three times per week with player updates.
Stephenson's football booster club -- whose roughly 135 members pay an annual fee of $400 to $500 -- also got involved, picking up the tab for transportation to last summer's college camps and, in some cases, paying camp fees.
"Our mission statement was to secure as many scholarships as possible for our kids," booster club president Tyrone Cornelius said. His son, Tyrone Jr., signed with Miami.
"Some of our players can afford to go to college without football scholarship, but some of them can't. We wanted to help them out any way we could, and we found a guy [Johnson] who took the ball and ran with it."
A number of the seniors got full rides to college; others got partial scholarships and others will receive grants based on their financial need.
Johnson has known about recruiting since his own playing days under Gartrell at Shamrock High in 1989; he signed with Texas Southern.
As a volunteer on Stephenson's staff, Johnson has coached linebackers and special teams for years. He has his own businesses, operating a staffing firm and commercial janitorial service. Johnson communicated with the colleges while making the rounds to job sites.
Clark, the team's wide receivers coach, works as a detention officer for Gwinnett County's Sheriff Department. In his off time, he e-mailed colleges information on the team's practice and game schedules, among other duties.
"It has been a priority at Stephenson for years, but [we were the first people] who had the time and energy to push it," Johnson said. "Fortunately, I have good people that work for me, and I can do what I need to do to pay the bills. When I was riding around, I called and texted the college coaches."
Years ago, Gartrell had a feeling this group of seniors was something special. Would it be the Stephenson squad to finally make it to the state championship? The Jaguars went undefeated in the regular season but lost in the playoff's second round.
No one was bemoaning the season's disappointment on Wednesday.
"Having our kids go to college and get degrees is more important to us than winning a state championship," Gartrell said. "We want our players to be good professionals in the workplace, good fathers and good people in the community.
"Does that mean we don't have the desire to win a state championship? No. A state championship is a goal we've wanted all along. We haven't been able to complete the process yet."
"But seeing all the parents' faces on signing day, knowing the escalating costs of college and with the economy like it is, it's a pretty gratifying feeling."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.