Respect is earned

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 4, 2004

The last time Hertford County High School competed for an Eastern State Championship in the sport of football, members of the Bears current squad either had yet to enter this world or were still wearing diapers.

It was 1988 when then head coach Daryl Allen took his Bears to Siler City to square off against Jordan Matthews. The Bears – led that night by the likes of Keith Roberson, Tyrone Joyner, Keb Burgess, Wendell Futrell and James Newsome – crushed their hosts, 35-0, to advance to the state championship.

One week later, Hertford County High – in its first year of existence after Ahoskie and Murfreesboro consolidated – dropped a 13-10 heartbreaker at Thomasville in the Class 2-A finals.

Up until today’s game in Greenville, the Bears have never matched the ’88 squad’s success. That can all change, beginning at 5:30 p.m. today at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on the campus of East Carolina University.

Standing in the Bears way is an old nemesis – James B. Hunt High School of Wilson. Since 1990, those two proud football programs have locked horns on numerous occasions, most all of which have been memorable battles on the gridiron. If my memory serves me correct, the Bears have only beaten the Warriors twice in 14 years (1997 in Wilson and 2002 in Ahoskie). That fact doesn’t bode well for HCHS’ chances today in Greenville, especially figuring in that Hunt beat the Bears, 13-6, earlier this season.

But, as the old saying goes, games are not won or lost on paper.

Despite their past history vs. Hunt, I really like the Bears chances going into today’s game. Myself, like so many others who keep a close watch on high school football in the state, stand in awe of what HCHS has been able to achieve after such a miserable start to their 2004 season.

Four games into coach Greg Watford’s first year at the helm of the HCHS football program, the Bears were without any wins. Not only were the losses coming in succession, they were by lopsided margins. Throwing out the 13-6 setback on Sept. 10 vs. Hunt, the Bears were on the short end of outcomes against Tarboro (47-6), Gates County (35-13) and D.H. Conley (42-18). The HCHS defense had more holes than Bonnie and Clyde’s car. They couldn’t stop a cold.

Even a 35-18 win on Sept. 24 at home vs. Elizabeth City Northeastern failed to fully right a fast sinking ship. The following week (Oct. 1), the Bears blew a 21-6 lead at rival Edenton and stunk it up in the second half, losing 26-21.

Break out the blankets and the pillows, the Bears were ready for an early hibernation.

But then came an amazing transformation.

Coach Watford – a no nonsense type of guy who had benched several key players for disciplinary reasons during a few early-season contests – must have held some sort of &uot;gridiron revival.&uot; He either put the fear of God into his Bears, or precisely placed a foot on an unwelcomed part of the body.

Standing at 1-5 overall, the Bears proceeded to kick some….err, well you know, the place where Watford’s foot landed. Starting with a 28-14 win at Currituck on Oct. 8, the Bears lit the fuse on what is now an eight-game winning streak.

An offense, struggling to score points in the early part of the season, is now averaging 31 per game. A defense, that seemingly would struggle against a group of Girl Scouts back in August and September, is currently limiting its opponents to a mere two touchdowns per outing.

So, what’s up with Hertford County football? How has a team, headed nowhere in no particular hurry, gone from 0-4 to one step away from playing for a state championship?

The credit, in equal parts, goes in different directions.

Pass the praise to coach Watford and his staff. Never did they reach for the proverbial panic button. Never did they write off this year’s team and begin building for the 2005 season. They kept coaching and teaching the game plan developed before pre-season practice opened. Week-by-week, little-by-little, the Bears got better.

Give credit to the players. Another group of young men may have quit, but this one refused to wave the white flag of surrender. Instead of in-fighting, squabbles and back-biting, this group decided to follow the path being paved by their coaches. They listened; they worked; they executed. Now, eight games after their horrendous start, the Bears are playing for Eastern State Championship. They are now two collective heartbeats away from etching their names in the HCHS history book as no other team before them has ever hoisted a real state title trophy above their heads.

Win or lose today, HCHS, Watford and his staff have earned my respect. The players may not understand this quite yet, but the coaches will know exactly what I mean – you don’t win respect, you earn it. A handful may recall the particulars from a certain game or a certain win, but respect is something that is remembered for a lifetime