Senior outside linebacker Wallace Melton has a simple way to explain how reaching the Alabama Class 7A state championship game changed the way he is treated around Phenix City as a member of the Central football team.
Folks who never had spoken to him are congratulating him and wishing him well, he said.
So when the No. 1 Red Devils (13-0) play the No. 2 Thompson Warriors of Alabaster for the state title Wednesday (8 p.m. EST kickoff) in Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn University, the moment should be cherished by the school and community in addition to the team, Melton said.
“Everybody knows this is a big opportunity for us since we haven’t been there since a long time,” Melton said. “It’s like an award for the whole community to get such a high standard.”
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Indeed, it’s been a quarter century since the Central football program won the 1993 crown with a 12-7 victory over West End.
Even the principal’s son feels being on a team that reached the state championship game has elevated his social status.
“It’s like I’m a celebrity now,” said senior fullback Tommy Vickers III. “I mean, you go to the barbershop and everyone’s like, ‘Take it home for the city,’ and you go to school, and teachers you’ve never talked to and students you’ve never seen before come up to you and high-five you, and they go, ‘Hey, man, win this for us.’”
It’s the kind of impact head coach Jamey DuBose and the leaders who brought him here envisioned when he arrived at Central in 2014 from Florence. DuBose has coached in six state championship games and won four, two as a head coach and two as an assistant at Prattville.
Since the 1993 Central team’s pinnacle under Wayne Trawick, who went 185-85-2 from 1973-97, successors Ron Nelson (92-42 from 1998-2009) and Woodrow Lowe (33-13 from 2010-13) kept the Red Devils in contention, but they didn’t reach the top again.
Now, they have another chance as DuBose has compiled a 53-9 record in five seasons at Central.
After losing in the state semifinals to McGill-Toolen the past three years, the Red Devils finally beat that fifth-ranked nemesis in the quarterfinals this year then overcame five turnovers and a two-touchdown deficit to prevail against unranked Lee-Montgomery.
“We’ve lacked that ability to finish each year and get the win,” DuBose said. “Every team has been a really good football team. This team was really determined.”
DuBose credits several factors for breaking through: senior leadership, the leadership council sessions started in January by offensive line coach Trip Duke, and focusing on what only they can control.
“He did a lot of talks revolving around the word ‘finish,’ finishing things,” DuBose. “We’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on that.
“In the past, we would worry about the opponent, the big picture. This year, we’re just worried about us. If we take care of us, and if we do what we’re supposed to do, then it’s going to take care of itself.”
Central has more than 40 seniors on its 127-player roster. Melton said the leadership council “made a great difference” on the team.
“Everybody can’t be leaders,” he said. “Sometimes you need followers, and you need good followers.”
Coaches have found inspiration in weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes devotionals, DuBose said.
“We’re working on being better men, better husbands, better coaches, better teachers, better people,” he said.
There’s a good reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror, DuBose noted.
“The rearview mirror is small because it’s in the past,” he said. “You can’t live in it. If you stare in your rearview mirror in your car, you’re going to wreck.”
All of which, DuBose said, has improved the team’s ability to handle adversity.
Such as trailing by two touchdowns in the state semifinal game — their largest deficit of the year.
“In years past, there may have been a doubt if negative things started to happen, or there may have been a quit even,” DuBose said. “But now, with our football team and where we’re at, our guys are looking for answers. They’re not looking for ways out. . . . We all stay calm, and we know that if you we keep playing, it’s going to weather the storm.”
DuBose heard players on the sideline voicing encouraging words, such as “We got this.” Then they showed that resolve with their actions.
“There was never any panic,” DuBose said. “There was never any blaming. There was never any complaining. We just kept playing, and we ended up finding a way to win in the end.”
And it ended with senior quarterback Peter Parrish (committed to LSU) finding senior tight end Kameron Mason for a 49-yard touchdown with 8 seconds left.
Melton has been in the program since seventh grade, the year before DuBose arrived, so he has seen from the inside how the program has evolved.
“He brought us together as a family,” DuBose said. “Before him, I feel like we were like individuals a lot.”
Vickers, also in the program since seventh grade, confirmed that assessment.
“It was a complete 180,” he said. “. . . We had a lot of really good players, really good superstars, but it was a lot of individualism. I think we’ve almost completely eliminated that this year.”
To reform their mindset, Vickers said, “unfortunately, it took losing in the semifinals for three straight years. No matter how much talent we have, if we don’t act and play as a team, then we’re never going to accomplish that final goal of winning a championship.”
The difference shows the most during “crunch time,” Vickers said, in games, practice and the locker room.
“We’ve had a lot of guys start arguing with each other then,” he said. “People would go, ‘Well, how many offers do you have? I have 20 offers, and you don’t have any, so therefore it doesn’t matter what you say.’ It wasn’t about ‘How can I help the team?’ It was ‘How can I increase my stock and go to college?’ . . . We had to realize that until we come together and act like a team, act like a brotherhood and have that bond, we’re not going to win. We’ll win the area every year, we’ll go to the playoffs every year, but we’ll continue to be the laughingstock of never winning the big game.”
So in big games, that team mentality has players thinking, “I’m going to do my job so my brothers can get the spotlight,“ Vickers said. “On offense, it has to be, ‘I’m going to block my tail off so my running back can score.’ On defense, it has to be, ‘I’m going to fill my gap so my linebackers can make the tackle.’ It’s doing your responsibility all the way to the finish.”
All the Red Devils who played in the semifinal are expected to be available to play in the final, including senior running back A’montae Spivey (committed to Arkansas), who had a concussion.
“We’re as healthy as we can be,” DuBose said.
Instead of pushing away the outside noise that comes along with the buildup toward a championship game, DuBose welcomes his players to embrace it.
“I know it means a lot to the community,” he said. “I saw a sense of togetherness with not just the football team but also the community. Winning in athletics can bring more than just a team together; it can bring a community together.
“This week, there’s been a lot of support. There’s been a lot of people I’ve never heard from, people that say they’ve been tremendous fans but maybe been in the background, and now they’re wanting to come forward. So that’s what building a program is about, getting everyone involved. Sometimes it takes proof in getting over that to be able to get there.”
DuBose often tells his players they must “deserve victory” to be victorious.
“You’ve got to put in the work,” he said. “You’ve got to put in the time.”
This year, he added, “This team greatly deserved it. Not that the others didn’t, but I know this team has done everything I’ve asked them to do. . . . Our guys are really hungry to go try to prove a point and win it.”
None of the Red Devils has been in a playoff game at a college stadium. That’s why DuBose is glad their opponent also doesn’t have such big-atmosphere experience. This is the Thompson football program’s first state championship game in 36 years.
“They’re going to feel that same emotion and that same energy and that same excitement,” DuBose said.
The two state titles DuBose has were claimed at Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa and at Legion Field in Birmingham. He is giving his players this advice about dealing with their surging emotions:
“We’ve got to understand it, and we’ve got to control it, and we’ve got to kind of get through it and get down to football,” he said. “Once you get into the game, you settle down. There will be those moments early when guys will have to play through the energy or some of the excitement.”
Melton takes that message to heart.
“I can’t let my emotions get the best of me,” Melton said. “Coach always says, ‘Champions make routine plays.’ I just have to stay calm and practice what I’ve been told.”
DuBose sensed “a little bit of complacency” among his players in the semifinal after beating McGill-Toolen in the quarterfinal.
“Now that we’ve crossed that barrier,” he said, “I think our guys understand that we can do big things.”
DuBose welcomes the entire Columbus area to attend the championship game and root for the Red Devils.
“We need the support from everyone, not just Phenix City,” he said. “We’re playing for everyone in east Alabama and the tri-community area.”
CHEERING FOR THE RED DEVILS
Tuesday at 1:45 p.m., fans will send off the Red Devils in style as they board buses at the school for their trip to Auburn, where they will stay that night. Phenix City Police granted permission for fans to line Dobbs Drive from the school’s entrance to the intersection with Opelika Road. Dobbs Drive, from the 2300 block to the intersection, will be closed to vehicles between 1:15 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Phenix City students in grades 8-12 will be dismissed early, at 1:15 p.m.; all other students will be dismissed at their normal time.
Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. EST, fans can gather around Gate 10 on Heisman Drive to cheer the Red Devils as they walk from their buses into Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST, kickoff against Thompson. Central fans will sit in the east stands.
Thursday, all Phenix City schools will start classes two hours later than normal.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.