By the time Thanksgiving rolls around each year, South Central High School’s football gear has been collected, inventoried and put away until the next season.
There are no more practices, no more games. Those are for teams making a deep run in the playoffs.
The Falcons, who have been playing varsity football since 2004, have never advanced past the second round until this year, so no coach has had to work out the details of squeezing in a morning practice on Thanksgiving Day before gathering with family.
Head coach Andy Tew knows what a rare bird that is for the newest and largest high school in Pitt County still striving to establish a winning tradition. He has been a part of every varsity coaching staff, making him “the self-declared South Central High School football historian,” and is aware no Falcons’ team has had the opportunity to suit up this late in November.
A history-making 10-win season in Tew’s third year as the program’s leader gives these Falcons that chance, and they head to top-seeded Scotland County on Friday night with a berth in the Eastern 4-A finals on the line. Although much of the focus is on what happens after the 7:30 p.m. kickoff, Tew knows what his team has accomplished extends far beyond the white lines of the field.
“It’s been a long time coming, not just for South Central but for those guys who have watched South Central and have stuck with South Central and the community and the fans,” he said. “Some people have always written us off, or we weren’t necessarily in the conversation. We’ve had some competitive teams, we’ve had some great players come through here. … All glory is fleeting, and next year we’re going to have to see. But we’re not in the reflection process. We’re still doing it.”
Tew wants his players to appreciate the moment and the opportunity they have. He knows they come from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances — some good, some not so good — but they do share one bond. And he took a few minutes after Wednesday’s practice to stress how fortunate this team is.
“We’ve all got this game,” he said. “That’s kind of what’s pulled us together. … Sometimes we get caught up in what we don’t have, and we miss what we do have. If you always appreciate what you’ve got, you’ll never be wanting anything.
“There’s some people that want to play and can’t, some people that can but don’t, and they’ve chosen to come out here and play the game, and we’re playing it at a high level.”
Finding a balance
Win or lose, Tew knows he can count on hugs from his two daughters, 6-year-old McKinley and 9-year-old Aubrey Mae, and wife, Katy, on the field after each game. It’s a brief but important time he cherishes and helps reinforce what’s important.
“The youngest girl, she comes out and asks me if we won or lost,” Tew said. “That’s gratifying that she’s just there for me. Having them come out there on the sideline or on the field after the game has been extremely gratifying. Once (the teams) shake hands, that’s one of the first things I turn and look for.”
Family time and football rarely are compatible. While Tew is occupied with watching film, conducting practice and preparing game plans, his girls are involved in their own activities — soccer, swimming, dance and church. They occasionally stop by the school to help with team meals or laundry.
After football season, Tew will take a few weeks off before weight lifting begins for football players, then it’s on to coaching track and spring practice in May. After another short break, it’s back to the football grind.
It helps that Katy — the daughter of a former football coach, Lonnie Baker, whose stops included Goldsboro, Wilmington, Jacksonville and Fayetteville before eight successful years at J.H. Rose — understands the culture and the demands of the job. Tew also frequently relies on the wisdom he picked up from Baker and other coaches and colleagues — middle school coach Bob Blick, former Farmville Central coach Dixon Sauls, and Kemp Ewing and Walt Davis at South Central.
“Some of the mentors and older coaches have always said to make sure that you have a balance, that you do work hard and put your effort and time into what you’re doing on the field but there has to be a balance with your family life because they sacrifice a lot and give up a lot of time,” he said. “They support me and know this is one of my loves and one of the things I’m going to give great effort to. They love to be a part of it.”
Tew hopes the time and effort he pours into the program will not solely be judged on wins and losses. After a 2-9 debut in 2015, he has posted 5-6 and 10-2 records.
Along with blocking and tackling techniques and offensive execution, he and his staff aim to teach responsibility, accountability and that hard work eventually pays off – something he learned from his grandfather.
He realizes he may not see that payoff in some of his players until many years later – or perhaps ever – but strives to make a difference.
“Sometimes I like to joke and say I run a mentoring program in the afternoons and I use football as a draw to get them out there,” he said. “Any time you’re making decisions that are impacting these young men’s lives, you do have to consider the entity, the team, the group, but sometimes you make decisions based on them and what’s going to be best for this young man at this particular moment, how he’s going to look back on this in years to come.
“… A football player is not all of who you are, but it’s a big part of who are and who you will become, so when we’re making decisions as coaches, I think we need to make sure that we take that to heart and understand that football is a big part of what we’re doing,” he said. “We do want to be successful, but in the long run when football has run out and they’re raising their own children and they’re holding down their own jobs and trying to be a good husband and father or good employee or employer or whatever it is, did you give them a set tools that’s going to help them be successful in whatever role or whatever moment they find themselves in.”
The only way to be effective as a role model is to be consistent and genuine, Tew said.
“It’s not something that you can fake,” he said. “It’s not a switch that you can turn on and off. It’s something daily. It’s not necessarily a grind, but you wake up and you do it and you look back on it and say, ‘Did I do that right? Did I do that poorly?’
“The fact that you did it might be enough, that you were willing to step up and put the whistle on and the hat on and say, ‘I’ll go out there and give of my time and my efforts and be a servant leader.’”
Enduring a couple of 1-10 seasons in the early years of the program and just four total winning seasons including this year makes a breakout season gratifying. The Falcons have long lived in the shadows of rivals J.H. Rose, the owner of five state championships, and D.H. Conley, which has reeled off seven consecutive winning seasons totaling 64 victories.
South Central celebrated its first-ever win over Rose this season, but fell to Conley in the regular-season finale in a duel for the Eastern Carolina 3-A/4-A Conference title. Although the Falcons missed on that goal, their mind-set of challenging for titles has changed.
“We’ve had that conversation as a team,” Tew said. “We talked about being champions and how much work has gone into us coming to this particular point. These guys have actually responded to it. It’s important to them now. They’re excited. There’s a buzz in the community, there’s a buzz in the building. They created it. And they’re experiencing it because of what they have done as a team.”
And having been there from the start, Tew gains some satisfaction but quickly shares the credit.
“It is a personally satisfying thing, but I play such a small role in it I feel like,” he said. “It’s the group of kids that have come through at a particular time with a staff at a particular time, just kind of all rolled into one. Yes, I’m the head coach, but one guy can’t do it by himself.
It’s the staff that’s putting together the game plan and the group of guys who have bought into to what we’re trying to do. That’s probably the biggest thing.”