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Photo courtesy of Neil Fonville.
Kam Ford at the Hoover-Allen game.
Hoover High School football is neither average nor typical.
The Bucs gained national notoriety with the MTV show “Two-A-Days,” which shone a light on the inner workings of a dominant program that has remained extremely successful in the 10 years since the show first aired in August 2006. It ran through March 2007.
Thanks in part to that exposure, Hoover is afforded opportunities many programs would never dream of being involved with.
One of those opportunities came in August, as the Bucs traveled to Allen, Texas, to play in the Tom Landry Classic. The Bucs were the first team in the 17-year history of the Classic to hail from outside Texas. This was no normal trip for a high school football team, and I was able to experience firsthand the inner workings of Josh Niblett’s program.
As anyone knows, traveling becomes old quickly. The start of the journey is fun and exciting, but those emotions turn to boredom and exhaustion after a short period of time.
At 11:30 a.m. that Thursday — Aug. 25 — the Bucs loaded up and departed the high school in search of Texas. A 30-minute bus ride to the airport led to a 90-minute flight. In and of itself, that’s not a big deal. But when dealing with roughly 100 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds, the majority of whom had never stepped foot on an aircraft, that’s no small task.
“There were a lot of people walking on the plane looking a little nervous,” senior linebacker KJ Vault said. “When we were taking off, the eyes got a little big.”
Nonetheless, the team made it to Dallas without a hitch. The city of Allen is less than 30 miles away from Dallas Love Field, but traffic in the metro area is not easy to navigate. It took more than an hour to reach Allen High School in the middle of the afternoon.
It’s safe to say the word “congested” was redefined in my mind.
Alabama is arguably the epicenter of the college football universe, and that passion bleeds into the high-school ranks, but you won’t find any high school football stadiums that seat 18,000 people with standing room available for 3,000 more.
That’s what the Bucs saw upon arriving at Allen on Thursday afternoon. Eagle Stadium features amenities that rival and surpass many college athletic facilities. The press box seemingly extends into the clouds. The video board is reminiscent of ones found at mid- to high-level college programs.
Players walked out of the tunnel onto the field, phones set to record, faces displaced by smiles with a touch of awe as they soaked it in. The tone of their next journey out of that tunnel in the corner of the end zone would be much, much different.
Taking a football team to a restaurant may not sound like much, but it’s one of the most revealing moments into a team’s character and presence of mind.
As the mass of Bucs descended on its dinner destination, I stood next to an assistant coach watching the players turn a full buffet into an array of trays left with scraps. What else would you expect?
That particular coach explained to me how well-mannered he thought the group would be in this setting, and he was right. Families of four or five have likely had far more eventful dinners in public.
The team was shuttled to the hotel for the rest of the evening to wind down and do prep work for the game the following day.
If you don’t see a hotel ballroom as the ideal place for a pregame walk-through, you’re not alone. But the Bucs reiterated their game plan, took part in film study, filled up gallon jugs with Gatorade and went to bed.
Friday promised to be fun, as the team got a tour of AT&T Stadium, the luxurious home of the Dallas Cowboys, before heading to local Martin High School for lunch and a pregame walk-through.
I began to notice something during this second walk-through. What had been a loud and fun group of kids in the 24 hours since departing Hoover High was beginning to morph into a collective group of laser-eyed, focused players.
The transformation had started before the team returned to the hotel for a few hours, but when the team dinner rolled around, I was with 100 completely different kids than the day before. Niblett told me earlier that I would begin to see the kids “lock in,” but what I saw was more extreme than I expected. Hardly a word was uttered during the meal, with the exception of a devotion and prayer.
It was time to go.
We’ve seen football coaches jump all over players for making mistakes, whether it be Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Will Muschamp or anyone else. But one of the most impressive things I witnessed during the trip was Niblett’s pregame speech to his assistant coaches.
Niblett leads his assistants just like he leads his players. He implores them to be great, not just at football, but to be great men and role models for their players and families.
His message to his coaches consisted of quoting a passage from the Bible, praying with them and telling the coaches to “build [the players] up,” despite mistakes or faults.
The game did not go according to plan, as the Bucs lost 25-7 even after scoring on their first drive to take an early lead.
“We just didn’t put any pressure on them,” Niblett said after the game. “The only pressure we put on them is when we went (up) 7-0. You have to make plays. I thought our defense played well enough to win the game. When you play in games like this, everybody’s got to play their A-game, and we didn’t tonight.”
The team pulled into the Hoover High parking lot at 4 a.m. Saturday after flying back home immediately following the game. The next challenge would be recovering from the trip quickly enough to defeat Mountain Brook in the teams’ first Class 7A, Region 3 game. The Bucs did, and won 19-3.
The wins are how coaches and programs are measured. But the Hoover football program offers so much more than that. The kids in the program have it hammered in their mind day after day to be citizens who contribute to society, to be better fathers, husbands and men than even they believe they can or should be at their current stage of life.
Coach Niblett does it right.