By David Purdum / For the AJC
Tyrone — Sandy Creek coach Chip Walker leaves the lights on in his office before home games. Opponents get a better look at the championship trophies lined up on his window sill, that way.
The window sill was bare 15 years ago. Now, there’s not enough room for all of the Patriots’ trophies.
Sandy Creek has come a long way, and a lot has changed during that stretch.
“When we got here, it was not a football community, but it’s turned into one,” said Walker, who arrived at Sandy Creek in 1999 to coach under his father, Rodney.
Chip succeeded his father in 2005 as head coach.
Longtime defensive coordinator Eddy Householder, who also joined the staff in 1999, remembers the first practice. It started at 6 a.m., in pitch dark.
“As soon as we got onto the field and got going, about 20 sets of headlights came on and lit up the field,” said Householder. “I think people were always excited.”
You can imagine what it’s like these days. With the Patriots coming off their third state championship in the last four seasons, the tiny town of Tyrone is bubbling, from the Publix to the Shamrock Kitchen, the coaching staff’s favorite breakfast spot.
“We’ve got a lot of old timers who come in to talk football with Coach Walker,” said Tracy Sutton, owner of the Shamrock. “He’s more popular than the politicians.”
Publix is Walker’s favorite lunch spot. He’s fond of the deli chicken tenders.
“I go in the Publix, and I’ll be stopped two or three times by people wishing us good luck and wanting to talk about what’s going on,” Walker said. “Sometimes it’s parents of former players; sometimes it’s people I don’t even know. We’re 30 minutes from downtown to Atlanta, but we still have that small-town feel. We have a community.”
For the last several seasons, fans have tailgated for the Patriots’ first spring practice. Last week, 15-20 parents and fans gathered by the end of a Wednesday practice. The enthusiasm is peaking. So is the talent.
“This place has always had talent. Don’t let anyone tell you that it hasn’t,” said Walker. “It might not have had as much as we have right now, but it’s always had talent.”
Walker’s right: His team is loaded to the gills. Fifteen key players return from last year’s 15-0 title team. D-I talent is everywhere. Five players—quarterback Cole Garvin, receiver Demarre Kitt, defensive lineman Chris Williams, running back Eric Swinney and linebacker/defensive end Khari Lain—were selected to the AAAA preseason All-State team. This is the team to beat in AAAA.
But how focused and how hungry are the Patriots, after rolling over opponents last season by an average of 34.7 points per game? They weren’t sharp during the Wednesday practice.
Walker got on them from the beginning, badgering his players for not transitioning from one stretch to the next in their pre-game routine.
“If we get to the Georgia Dome, we want to look like we know what we’re doing,” he yelled.
During the two-hour workout, Walker berated his senior quarterback for not having control of the huddle. He shook his head in disgust at consecutive botched field goal attempts and didn’t understand why the bulk of his hefty starting offensive line was not holding up against a defensive front made up of reserves.
“You have proceeded to not pay attention to a damn thing all day,” Walker yelled.
The Patriots were to scrimmage Starr’s Mill the next day. Walker closed the practice by telling his team about another scrimmage as a reminder that, as the champions, they are the hunted.
“In 2007, Fayette County came in here and beat us in a scrimmage right there on that field,” he said, pointing to the Patriots’ game field. “Their fans ran out to the field and started chanting, ‘We beat the Creek. We beat the Creek.’ Their coach took a piece of the turf from our field and kept it on his desk. Everyone we play is going to give you their best shot.”