linemen in the 2014 class. When he was in
the eighth grade he was already 6-foot, 200
pounds. He played running back, a move that
would not have been possible in most youth
programs in the country.
“You say, that’s going to hurt a 130-pound
cornerback, but what you find out is, the majority
of the time the 6-foot, 200-pound eighth grader
can’t get that speed up under him fast enough to
put the lick on that kid,” Richards said.
The correlation is, as those smaller cornerbacks move into high school and mature and
grow, they’re already used to taking on bigger
and highly skilled players. With their newfound
bodies, they’re able to use instincts learned in
middle school to continue playing at a high level.
Everybody gets better because everybody is
“When those kids get to high school as fresh-
men, that 130-pound cornerback has already
been hitting a Dante Sawyer, so it’s not a cul-
Eliminating the culture shock – that’s the key.
Tackling bigger foes, using funny words to get lined
up, running elaborate plays – there are no surprises
when the kids begin practicing with the varsity.
Practice makes permanent. And the bond,
between the kids and the coaches, begins at
an early age.
“They’re not going to be able to execute some
of the plays that we do, but the way you go about
doing it makes the learning curve a lot easier in
the ninth grade,” Fleetwood said. “Now we can go
about execution a lot quicker than we can if we
still had to go over calling stuff and how to line up.”
Buford’s high school team has lost only ten
games since 2001. That’s staggering. But it’s
not hard to figure out why, especially when the
youth program’s accomplishments parallel that
of the big boys.
“The eighth grade team from Buford just won
the national championship,” Richards said. “It’s
like March Madness meets the World Series
with 64 teams and they meet in San Antonio.”
You know what that means.
“It will only get better as we go,” Fleetwood
says, speaking of Gwinnett’s high school feeder
system as a whole.
BUFORD COACH JESS SIMPSON WAS ON
Auburn’s 1989 SEC Championship team. Fleetwood spent 24 years coaching at the college
level, including stints at Troy, Tennessee-Chattanooga and Jacksonville State. Conn played college football at Alabama and spent two seasons
in Tuscaloosa as a graduate assistant. Sphire
coached a few seasons at Western Kentucky before achieving elite results in the Kentucky high
school ranks for nearly two decades. Norcross
coach Keith Maloof played football at West Georgia and has been coaching Georgia high school
football for nearly three decades. I could keep
going, but you see where I’m going with this.
Most of the head men in Gwinnett have a
college background, both playing and coaching. With booster clubs flush with cash and the
prevalent ‘I want to go up against the best to
prove myself’ mentality; the county attracts the
best of the best.
After taking numerous visits to colleges,
Sawyer says playing for Sphire is essentially like
playing for a college coach.
“It is,” he agrees right off the bat. “Coach Spire
is one of the best coaches that’s around right now.”
Sawyer says the team has film sessions and
position meetings and all kinds of homework
that isn’t usually associated with teams from
other areas. Does Sawyer think every high
school team is run this way?
“I wouldn’t know,” he answers. “But the way
we do it will help me a lot [at the next level].
That’s what I like about it.”
The attention to detail on the inside of each
program is undeniable. But it’s the additional
routes outside of the high school walls that can
take an average player to bigger and better levels.
Trainers like Goldin, with high-class gyms, can
be found all over the Metro Atlanta area. Goldin
is considered one of the best, with clients like
Atlanta Braves’ catcher Brian McCann and NFL
quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. He also works
out over 200 high schoolers, with the majority of
those kids coming from the Gwinnett area.
The benefits are limitless; there’s no ceiling
on how high the bar can be bench-pressed.
“A lot of times at a school, you can have the
best strength coach in the world, but you have
to deal with so many bodies that you have to
put together a plan for the masses,” Goldin
said. “Here it’s not like that at all. With our background and our ability to put together small
groups we can really give kids a better return.”
Goldin has put together agility and speed
drills for kids in elementary school. As kids
grow older, he tailors weight-training sessions
to specifically maximize each player’s athletic
potential. That means everything goes hand
in hand, the workouts, the youth program, the
attention to detail by the coaches.
Current University of Georgia offensive linemen David Andews, who starred at Wesleyan,
began working out with Goldin at an early age,
through high school and still to this day in the
offseason when he’s home from Athens.
He admits there were some long hours in the
gym, but the reward was well worth the blood,
sweat and tears expended.
“At times you’re in there thinking, ‘This stinks,’”
Andrews said. “I’d be tired and have schoolwork.
My friends were out having fun. But I don’t regret
any minute of it. Not one second.”
The work with Goldin set Andrews on a path
to start as a sophomore for the Bulldogs. Again,
there was no culture shock in the weight room
once Andrews arrived at Georgia. Refined and
ready, that’s a trait of a Gwinnett County kid.
“They’re far ahead,” Goldin said. “Any colleges where our kids have gone on to the coaches
have always said they were very well prepared.
Our kids are way ahead.”
BACK AT PEACHTREE RIDGE, I’M NOW IN
Fleetwood’s office having a casual, straight-
forward conversation. We drift on and off the
record as his phone beeps about every five
minutes or so with another text message. Twice
assistant coaches interrupt us, one looking for
a pump to blow up footballs, the other trying
to track down a kicking net. Fleetwood pushes
and pulls everyone to where they need to be.
BY THE NUMBERS
“You look like a receiver,” he points out to
one. “And you’re a good basketball player, son,
I’ve watched you play,” he says to the other.
“But you need to be thinking about the number
of scholarships available in football as opposed
to basketball. Both of you think about it.”
They both agree they’ll come out for the next
practice. Two more fish released into the pool.
Can Peachtree Ridge get turned back in the
right direction? There’s no reason the Lions can’t.
“I’m in charge, and this is life and we’re going
to get through this,” Fleetwood says. “We’re going to be back. You just rest assured. I’ve never
hesitated on it.”