The first high school football games of the new season don’t begin for another three weeks, but the lights were turned on at 12:01 Thursday morning for practices at several Georgia schools.
Most of them call it Midnight Madness – the ritual of holding full-pad workouts at the early possible moment under Georgia High School Association rules. That was Aug. 1 this year.
Thomas County Central in Thomasville has been holding Midnight Madness for 23 years, the longest-running tradition of its kind in the state.
‘’Every program has a signature part to it, and this is one of ours,’’ said Thomas County Central coach Bill Shaver. ‘’Our fans really like it. We’ve had six or seven thousand people come out. Old players like to come back and be a part of it. It’s one of those traditions of Yellow Jacket football.’’
Cars filled the parking lot, and fans surrounded the field, watching from the sidelines on blankets and chairs. Shaver told his players to put a hand on a shoulder, and he opened with a prayer in near total darkness at midnight. Then, at 12:01 a.m., the players took the field.
Other Georgia schools that held midnight practices Thursday morning included Adairsville, Cambridge, Eastside, Hebron Christian and Walnut Grove.
Adairsville had never done a midnight practice, but coach Eric Bishop hoped it would spark some excitement in his first season as head coach. Some 79 players reported at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday for team meetings, then hit the field at midnight and worked out for about two hours under the stadium lights. The Tiger Club prepared what Bishop called ‘’not a midnight snack, but a maybe 2 a.m. snack.’’
The team then spent the night in the gym, slept late and prepared for their second practice of the day at 3 p.m.
‘’It’s a message to our kids that we’re going to try to outwork the competition,’’ Bishop said. “We can’t practice more than anybody [GHSA rules prevent that], but we can practice before anybody.’’
Walnut Grove in Walton County also has a new coach in Ben Reaves, whose experience with midnight practices dates back more than 10 seasons at his previous gigs at Putnam County and Newton.
‘’It’s just something I’ve always done,’’ Reaves said. “Kids need things to get excited about. Doggone, most kids are up watching TV or texting that late in the summer, so we might as well practice a little football for an hour and half.’’
Rick Hurst, coach of Eastside in Covington, got the idea while an assistant at Central Gwinnett, whose coach then was Bradley Warren, now at Dade County. When Hurst came to Eastside in 2005, the team had lost 14 straight games.
‘’I was trying to get some energy here because the program had fallen,’’ said Hurst, who has led Eastside to the playoffs five times since. ‘’After a few years I thought I might get rid of it, but the kids said no, it’s tradition now. It’s what kicks off our school year.’’
If there’s an inventor of midnight football practices in Georgia, it’s Ed Pilcher, now head coach at Berrien. Pilcher came to Thomas Central in 1991 looking for ways to establish a new work ethic. The girls basketball coach, Dennis Cain, suggested a midnight practice similar to those done in college basketball dating to the 1970s.
“Our deal was to tell our kids that we ain’t waiting; we are going to be the first team in the state to get practice started,’’ Pilcher said. “The first time we did, wasn’t nobody [fans] there. The second year, it was about 25 to 50. It just kept getting bigger.’’
It helped perhaps that Thomas Central won the first of five state titles after that second Midnight Madness.
‘We can’t stop it now,’’ said Shaver, who took over for Pilcher in 2008. “I have [former] players calling every year, asking if we’re going to do it. It’s just part of Thomas County Central lore.’’