DECATUR — Steve Thompson got in the storage closet and wheeled a downtrodden, damaged panther statue up a hill and sat it in front of the concession stands at Eisenhower High School.
The glory days of the panther are clearly in the past. It's believed to be the original that sat outside of the high school in the 1960s. The paint is nearly all chipped off, the tail is snapped off the back and both ears lay at the feet of the statue.
Therein lies one of assistant coach Kevin Hale's duties: Restore this concrete panther statue to glory, and have it ready to sit atop the hill that leads to the football field for the players to pat on its head. The tradition, the coaching staff hopes, is not unlike college football powerhouse Clemson's tradition of hitting a rock on the way to the field.
Thompson, Eisenhower's football coach and athletic director, is at the forefront of re-establishing the Panthers' on-the-field success after an 0-9 season in former coach Curtis Graham's lone year, and one win over the last two seasons. When last season ended, the Panthers had just 19 players on the team. When Thompson was hired in January, he, Hale, assistant coaches Mike Phillips, Tim Seider and Dajuan Johnson started scouring the hallways for players. They looked for players who had played and quit, like senior Eliyjah Woods, or players who simply hadn't given football a try.
“If you want to come play football and you think it’s something you want to be a part of, then we’d love to have you," Thompson said. "We hope to make it an enjoyable experience and we’re teaching the kids what they need to know."
The recruiting pitch has been simple and is rooted in a family bond — a sticking point for Thompson when assembling his coaching staff. Tucked behind the gymnasium during a Wednesday practice, Hale stood at the top of several sets of stairs while wearing a bucket hat with his cellphone in his hand to time the workouts. Almost every player that passed Hale heard their name shouted followed by, "I love you." The change was clear.
“It’s been, ‘Hey, here are the coaches,'" Thompson said of the recruiting pitch. "'You like these guys. Come give it a chance. We’re going to say what we mean and we’re going to stick to that. If you find we’re not being honest with you about the process that this is going to be, one that’s different than what you’ve experienced and one you’re going to enjoy, then by all means do what you want to do. But give us a chance. I think you’re going to enjoy it and it’s going to be different.’"
At summer workouts, the Panthers have upwards of 40 players, with some players in basketball or incoming freshmen yet to completely join. The hope for the coaches is that they have close to 60 kids on Aug. 30 when Jacksonville comes to town. Plucking kids out of the halls isn't a first for Thompson. When he took over as head coach at Tri-County in 2002, the team was coming off of a successful year with a senior-heavy class. He knows how to navigate these waters.
Aiden Seider finished his junior season last year with 18 other guys on the team. Seeing so many players at summer workouts, with more coming, was a step in the right direction. He, like the coaching staff and most of the players on the team, were plucking kids out of the hallway to play.
"The way we ended the year, I didn’t think it was going to be very promising," Seider said. "I thought at the most we’d at least have 20 kids, but it’s a really big shock. I didn’t expect we’d have this many kids out here."
Sophomore Jorden Jones-Thomas was with Seider last season, as one of the few left on the team. He's a blossoming standout for the Panthers. The change under the new regime is obvious, and it starts with numbers.
“We have a lot of young guys and a lot more heart, more commitment; a lot more than last year," Jones-Thomas said.
Seider's recruiting pitch isn't unlike that of the coaching staff. It all centers around family, and around moments when Seider and other teammates huddle in a stuffy weight room on a Wednesday with Johnson cheering on teammates to do another rep at bench press.
“What we say is, ‘Do you really want to be a part of a family?’ When we talk to the players, we really want to push the family aspect," Seider said. "That usually sets the players off. If we’re not in a family environment, who would want to play in a non-family environment?"
Coming into the summer, Thompson would have been elated to have 50 kids on his team this season. After recruiting efforts in the second semester, he wasn't sure how many would come to the workouts. That bridge, for now, is built. Now comes the structural integrity of the program.
“That’s a great start for us," Thompson said. "Now comes the part of teaching them, getting the buy-in and turning it around as far as the success."
The numbers are aided by guys like Woods, who stepped away last season, but were ready to jump back on the field with Thompson and his coaching staff at the helm. It didn't take much arm-turning for Woods to return, and he's been an key part of the summer workouts. He swings by to pick up teammates and comes in early to help prepare for the day.
“I love playing for the team and being a part of the football organization," Woods said.
This regime wants to grow and establish tradition. The cement panther is symbolic of the success Thompson and his assistants hope to have, to refurbish a program that has struggled in each of the last two seasons. Last season's 0-9 campaign can be the glue that's used to put together the broken pieces of the panther.
“As things came about, as we were all sitting there watching it, we were going, ‘Our kids deserve better,'" Thompson said. "That’s just the role that a lot of us took on. We want to do our part to try to give our kids a good experience."