I’m heading over to Marietta tonight to watch the Blue Devils (1-1) take on McEachern (1-1) in an old Cobb County rivalry. It’s the Channel 2 Sportszone Game of the Week and you can catch it live at 7:30 p.m. on RTV (Charter Ch. 127 and Comcast 248) or see the replay at 1 a.m. on WSB-TV.
No matter the outcome of tonight’s contest, both of these storied programs will come out triumphant. Each has endured horrible tragedies since the end of last season.
Most people know about the tragic death of McEachern star running back Rajaan Bennett last February in Powder Springs. Bennett, a Vanderbilt signee and 1,800-yard rusher for the Indians, was gunned down by his mother’s ex-boyfriend in a domestic dispute.
Last week, McEachern retired Bennett’s No. 5 jersey in an emotional ceremony before the Lowndes game. More than 10,000 people attended and the Indians responded by upsetting Lowndes 23-22.
Lesser known to the general populous is the grief with which Marietta has been dealing. Bert Dodd, the Blue Devils’ offensive line coach for the last 15 years, passed away after an extended illness three days before Fathers Day. Dodd, 49, also happened to be the father of Marietta senior defensive end Tripp Dodd.
Like Bennett, Coach Dodd was a beloved figure at his school. That was evidenced by the overflow crowd that eventually had to be turned away at the visitation this summer. The team is honoring his memory by wearing a uniform patch that says, simply, “Coach Dodd.”
Of course, Tripp Dodd finds himself struggling with grief every day.
“He’s dealing with it,” Marietta coach Scott Burton said. “The firsts are the hardest. Last week was first home game. Homecoming will be tough. Christmas. Senior prom. Graduation.”
We often forget that there is so much more to being a high school coach than winning football games. Their locker rooms are brimming with problem-solving challenges that go far beyond who should start at left guard. Academics, drugs, homelessness, conflict and grief stare them in the face more often than victory or defeat.
Burton and McEachern coach Kyle Hockman have dealt with more than their share this year.
“It’s been difficult,” Hockman said this week. “Being back in February, there’s been some time now for us. We’ve spent a lot of time together as a team. I don’t want to say it’s been a positive thing because of course something like that isn’t. But I think it’s brought us closer as a group.
Said Burton, who coached in Virginia for 11 years before succeeding James “Friday” Richards at Marietta: “All of us have had to deal with it. I’ve gotten that 2:30 a.m. phone call where a player has been murdered. You spring into action. You go into survival mode. But it’s tough on you and it’s tough on the kids.”
Out of tragedy often comes inspiration, and that’s certainly been the case for both these programs. Bennett’s mother, Narjakeetha Bennett, started a foundation in her son’s honor (see www.rajaanbennett.info). There was a Walk-a-thon last Saturday. And this year’s team, one of McEachern’s best in years, has adopted the motto “Keep 5 Alive,” which it rallies around before every game.
“We talk about it,” Hockman said. “The kids are pretty level-headed right now. They’ve learned to use their emotions as fuel. It has taught the kids to do the right things every day because you’re not promised the next day.”