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Saturday Morning Quarterback
Dec 04, 2006 12:00 am
Seeing Ron Welch arriving on the Floyd Stadium sideline moments before the BlueCross Bowl began Friday made me think how Friendship Christian's football program and school have changed since he arrived on Coles Ferry Pike in 1977.
When the Louisiana native came to Friendship, the Coles Ferry campus had only been on line a year. Original coach Ken Beck (yes, the Ken Beck who has become renowned for his expertise on all things Andy Griffith) had started the program even before the school moved to what is now known as Possum Town. Two of his players were brothers Jeff and Tim Burroughs, who both now have kids attending FCS.
Welch saw the program grow from its humble beginnings with players such as Eric Pirtle (whose family the field is named for) on the early teams to the 1982 playoff squad featuring Darrell Shockley, Gill White and Kevin Lester (now the school's board chairman) under Coach Bill Bryson (still one of the most revered names to those in the greater FCS family with ties to that era).
He stayed on when Bryson left and was replaced by James Anderson. Together they rebuilt the team to a nine-win season in 1985 with Kevin Gaines, Tim Filson, Jason Green, Jeff Redmon and Scott Fakes leading the way. Those nine victories were the school record for a single season which stood until Lee Sweeney and Co. shattered it a couple of years ago.
John McNeal came to Friendship in '86. My first conversation with him came when then-athletic director Don Walker, who knew McNeal from Goodpasture days, called me at home and put McNeal on the phone. I remember the new coach saying he would put an emphasis on weight lifting. Just about everybody lifts now, but not necessarily back then.
McNeal left after three seasons to return to his alma mater. During that period, the Commander offense was led by a running back named Brandon Mang. I remember interviewing Mang before the 1988 season (or perhaps '89) in which he said his goal was to make it to a bowl game. That seems so quaint now, but it was a different time then.
Mang never did play in a bowl or the playoffs under McNeal or Terry Arrington, whose contract wasn't renewed after three years. McNeal returned for the '92 season and has gradually built the program ever since. It was that year the Commanders went to Monterey and got their first playoff win. Later in the decade, they hosted a playoff game for the first time.
McNeal ran a ground-oriented offense during that period with running backs Chris Paske, Jesse Johnson, Chad Etheridge (running behind brother Daniel) and Tyler McChurch piling up 1,000-yard seasons.
As the 21st century dawned, the offense became more balanced with Doc Reese throwing passes to Noel Searcey, Matt Kegley and Adam Tomlinson. Reese was followed by Justin Gaines for a season before Sweeney came on to rewrite the school's passing records and take the team further than it had been previously.
Running the spread offense, Sweeney passed Friendship into the 2004 state quarterfinals as he was nominated for Mr. Football Back honors. At the same time, Michael Wheeler was establishing a tradition for middle linebackers by being nominated for Mr. Football Lineman the same season.
Sweeney and Wheeler graduated. But running back Jeremy Rickaway and Wheeler's successor at MLB, Wade Mitchell, brought the Commanders back to the state quarters in 2005.
Players and some coaches came and went. Others have remained on the premises for extended periods. One of McNeal's players from the early '90s, Duane Lowe, now calls the defensive signals for the Commanders. One of his linemen from the same era, James Tipps, now runs the scoreboard at Pirtle Field, a job he inherited from his father, Leonard, the school's retired custodian and bus driver who still drives the team bus for some of the shorter trips (a chartered bus is used for others).
There's also Paul Stovall, a Friendship alumnus from the early '80s who shoots the coaches video every game.
A couple of others come to mind who have never worn an FCS football helmet, but have meant just as much, if not more, to the program for decades. I asked Dr. Steve Neely last week how long he had been on the FCS sidelines during games and he couldn't remember an exact number of years, maybe 20 or 21.
Through it all has been Welch. He never played organized football, but with the exception of a few seasons in the late '90s and early '00s, he has coached the line since 1977. Under at least five coaches and on teams which posted records ranging from 2-8 to 14-0, he's been the steadying influence and confidant for two generations of Commanders.
I asked him during practice last week if he ever thought he would ever see the Commanders reach this level.
He answered, "I always hoped we would".
Watching Welch after Jackson Christian take the championship with a 19-13 win, I overheard him say he was happy for the Eagles. But his face reflected the pain which all second-place teams feel.
But this pain was felt on the state-of-the-art synthetic surface of MTSU's Floyd Stadium. The Commanders were standing where the vast majority of Tennessee high school teams wish they could be.
They've come a long way from 1977. And Welch has seen every backward and forward step.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.