MOUNT ZION — When Patrick Etherton became Mount Zion’s football coach in 2016, the first thing he was told to do was call Jerry Underwood and David Cooper if he needed anything done.
Underwood and Cooper were fixtures of the Mount Zion football program and had volunteered for the program for more than 40 years as equipment managers and members of the chain gang that marked the down and distance during games.
"They were part of the welcome wagon and we spent so much time with them that they were basically a part of our family, " Etherton said.
On the eve of his 45th season on the sidelines, Underwood died on June 28. His absence on the minds of coaches and players, the Braves decided to honor Underwood by sporting helmet decals that read "JPOPS," Underwood's nickname, this season.
"He was always smiling and I don’t think he ever met a stranger," Etherton said. "Fridays he was one of the first ones on the field and he was always one of the last people off the field talking with me no matter what happened. You never had to worry about anything — he was responsible. Our kids are spoiled and they don’t even know it.
"We added the decals on our helmets for the kids to remember how special Jerry was to what we have done and what we do."
Underwood and Cooper joined the Braves in 1974 when coach Bob Herrmann needed some assistance, and the pair have missed just a handful of games since. They became known for their handyman skills — they could repair anything.
"We would fix the shoulder pads, helmets, things like that. We would do whatever they needed," Cooper said. "We are here every practice and every game and we enjoyed coming out and helping the players — it kept us young.
"Jerry was also so friendly with the players — a buddy to them. He was very positive and very fair. It will be different this year without him."
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Underwood and his family — wife Patti bakes cookies for the team following a victory, son Jerry Jr. is a member of the chain gang and son Danny is an announcer at home games — have left an indelible mark on the Braves' program. At Underwood's visitation, the team came together to pay their respects.
"It was a really nice moment," senior lineman Peyton Moreau said. "It was surreal to be there and see his family and how they reacted. Patti was really happy to see us and it was very moving.
"Jerry was one of our biggest fans on the sidelines. Before every game I would come over and get a fist bump from him. He was a huge fan of the game as much as he was a huge help to us."
The visitation also inspired another idea to honor Underwood. Moreau and a group of seniors wanted to install a sign for the Braves reminiscent of Notre Dame's legendary "Play like a champion" sign that players slap on the way to the field.
"When we all went to the visitation it sparked an idea and I talked with my other linemen about it and we decided to do a sign for Jerry," Moreau said.
The metal sign will feature the Braves logo, Underwood's high school playing number (21), JPOPS, and the rallying cry: "Lead us into battle."
"We will get it placed before Week 1 and hopefully it will be around for a long time," Moreau said. "We are going to slap it on the way out to the field and hopefully in like 20 years it will be all beaten up from everyone hitting it."
Underwood's legacy will live on at the school he loved.
"They are a great family and a pillar of our community. They are good people who do things the right way and care about our players, " Etherton said. "I’m sure they care about the wins and losses but they care more about this school and the kids maturing and getting older."
Moreau said Underwood will be on the minds of the players when they take the field this season.
"He was a great person and he was a loving guy," Moreau said. "He was one of our biggest fans on the sidelines and you could always hear him on the field cheering us on."
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten