Photo by Brian Paglia
Forest Jones’ presence at Locust Grove has been permanent since he died last year during voluntary football workouts.
What if dozens of high school football players find a higher calling at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp?
What if an Atlanta Falcons tight end delivers a special video message and pays for dozens of young men to see NFL football in person for the first time in their life?
What if a community doesn’t worry about blame or retribution but healing and perseverance?
Is it enough?
Clint Satterfield doesn’t know. Locust Grove’s football coach has mulled that question ever since offensive lineman Forest Jones passed out at a voluntary workout and died over a week later last year.
“Can you find anything positive?” Satterfield said.
It’s been one year and one day since that excruciating moment in Locust Grove history, one that still holds such impact over Wildcats players and coaches.
Jones was 16, strong and smart, but he got too hot that July 25 Monday last year and collapsed on the way to the locker room. Jones was in the hospital and unresponsive for over a week until he finally passed. Doctors believed he may have had a heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
Locust Grove believed it could rally around the tragedy and do something magical on the field in tribute to Jones. It couldn’t. The Wildcats went 2-8 for the second straight season.
“We tried to play for him,” senior Nathan Hensley said.
Perhaps the record says Locust Grove failed in honoring Jones.
Throw out the record then.
Instead, consider how Locust Grove players began to end every breakdown after a drill or huddle with a resounding, ‘Forest!’ and still do.
Remember how Atlanta Falcons tight end Michael Palmer, a star at Parkview and Clemson, sent Locust Grove a personal video message encouraging the team and community and an invitation to attend a Falcons home exhibition game.
Remember how Satterfield began to award ‘The Jug’ — Jones was notorious for his water-filled jugs he'd bring to practices — every week to one player.
Hensley was the first one, and he did as instructed by Satterfield — he carried around the jug all week and filled it with something meaningful. Hensley chose something he knew Jones would appreciate. To this day he's kept it a secret.
"I can't tell," he said at a recent Locust Grove practice.
Part of the appeal for Satterfield in coming to Locust Grove four years ago to be the school’s first head football coach was the allure of creating a program from scratch. The rituals of practice and Friday nights would be his to choose.
He didn't want to have to create this one.
But he did, and it’s one of the many small things that gives Satterfield hope that Jones’ passing won’t be an empty memory at Locust Grove.
“[Jones’ death] is going to be here,” Satterfield said. “It was a tragedy, but the good has been the inspiration. I think about it everytime I walk in the building.”
Now, Locust Grove seems to have a team that could make a statement on the field. Jones would have been a senior, maybe even a starter. More importantly, he would have been about to graduate, ready to plunge into that next step of life whether it involved football or not.
Instead, his jersey number is lifted by wings on a sign near the far endzone, fixed into the ground by two metal poles so that it’s an inspiration for as long as Locust Grove High School stands.
Brian Paglia covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter? Follow him at @BrianPaglia.