ZEBULON, Ga - When Brad Webber took over as head football coach at Pike County High School in 2011 his first goal was to get his players into the weight room and help them understand the value of being physically fit. It's Webber's comfort zone, having received a Masters degree and a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from the University of Miami. He spent ten years with the Hurricanes and won two national championship rings, one while working for Jimmy Johnson and another under Dennis Erickson who followed Johnson as the Cane's head coach.
Webber brought his high-level brand of conditioning to Pike County, creating an army of "grinders" who understand that while they might not always match up athletically against certain opponents, their work ethic in the weight room can give them an edge in strength and endurance on Friday nights.
"The idea was to teach the boys how to be a 'grinder'," said Pike County Athletic Director James Stanford. "Weight training and strength is the backbone of this program. We try to make sure they understand that just because it's hard to succeed, doesn't mean you can't do it down the road. It's a philosophy that works in the weight room and in games."
After several years of development and a new and improved stadium and weight room, Pike County finally has a system in place designed to sustain excellence. This year's senior class became the most successful group in school history, helping the Pirates qualify for the GHSA playoffs for the third consecutive year. Last season, Pike County beat Southeast Bulloch in their first-round game, then stunned a heavily favored Crisp County team 26-25 on the road to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time ever. They'll have to travel to Cordele and beat the Cougars again this Friday in order to advance this season.
"There are going to be some kids that remember losing that game by one point. We think we match up well this time, but we'll have to go right at them because they're fast," said Stanford.
Pike County (7-3) flexes its newfound muscle with an intimidating offensive line anchored by 280 pound Jake Patterson, who holds the school record for pancake blocks. Defensively, the Pirates rely on a number of two-way players to get the job done. Senior defensive end Marcus Woods has been a revelation this season in his first year playing football at Pike County, Woods has dominated opponents, grading out in record fashion last week against Kendrick when he recorded four sacks helping the Pirates clinch a Region 4-AAA playoff spot with a 38-0 win.
But, no amount of effort and strength training could prepare Pike County's football team for what happened on the night of September 28 when their teammate, junior linebacker Dylan Thomas, collapsed and later died after suffering a traumatic head injury in a game against Peach County. Thomas' death rocked the town of Zebulon and elicited condolences from all over the world. The Pike County coroner officially ruled his death an accident, but that did little to comfort a devastated community.
"Dylan was somebody you could depend on," Stanford told High 5 Sports. "He wanted to play and was always a 'yes sir' kind of guy, as a student and an athlete. He was always respectful to others. It's one of those things where you know his parents taught him how to carry himself. When it happened, we all went into work mode- Coach Webber and his staff were the leaders who helped talk to the kids and their families. It was tough going to the hospital because we think of them (players) as our kids too, but the faith-based community offered us so much support to see the school through."
Since that tragic day, Pike County has devoted their season to Dylan- team captains carrying his number thirty-two jersey to the center of the field for every coin toss. The #DylanStrong hashtag has become a battle cry of sorts for the entire Pike fan base as they continue to mourn and come to grips with the harsh reality of his passing. An outpouring of support has come from all over the country according to Stanford. The school has received over fifty number thirty-two jerseys from football programs showing their respect. Miami head coach Mark Richt sent a signed Hurricane jersey, and Adidas partnered with T&G Sports to donate over eighty black jerseys for the team to wear on game days in Dylan's honor. The Atlanta Falcons invited the Pirates to watch a practice at team headquarters in Flowery Branch and honored Dylan and his family during a pregame ceremony at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the Buccaneers game.
But, the most touching display of support has come from Pike County's opponents.
"Our first game back against Rutland our coaching staff wore #DylanStrong tee shirts and we look over and the Rutland staff is in the same shirts. Mark Daniel is the athletic director over there, and that really meant a lot. Every team we've played since his death has brought out a number thirty-two jersey," said Stanford.
Thursday morning Pike County High School will have something other than a playoff berth to celebrate, and they'll do it with Dylan Thomas in their hearts. The Pirates won their third overall High 5 Sports Team of the Week award in a landslide four-day Facebook voting campaign. Pike County fans voted 5,472 times to bring The Hand Trophy back to Zebulon, so Paul Milliken and the Good Day Atlanta pep team will be there to raise it high in honor of the "grinders" who continue to make PCHS a force to be reckoned with on Friday nights.