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As numbers grow, Knights wait for more players

Drakeford stays on the lookout for potential student-athletes

Posted: August 9, 2018 11:59 a.m.
Updated: August 10, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

TYRONNE DRAKEFORD EXPECTS the North Central football team’s already solid numbers to swell once school starts in less than two weeks.

Tyronne Drakeford knows, all too well, the difficulties and choices which student-athletes face at North Central.

A 1989 graduate of the school and former Knight football, basketball and baseball standout, Drakeford played alongside teammates who were forced to miss practice time due to not being able to get to or from the school’s Boonetown campus. With an enrollment footprint which extends from the Lake Wateree area and north into Cassatt and Bethune, it is a healthy haul for players to get to offseason football workouts in the summer months and find rides home from practice during the season.

Drakeford, who is entering his second season as the Knights’ head football coach and athletic director, is the latest in a line of coaches who have had to alter their schedule and find players at the school who may be able to help his football team. In that respect, he is no different than his predecessor, Louis Clyburn, or former NC coaches such as Ron Blackmon, Carl Startsman and Bill Few.

Sitting in a chair inside a storage room located within the school’s field house which was filled with his coaches’ laptop computers perched atop a long table, Drakeford nodded in agreement when the subject of his varsity having dressed out 37 players --- including nine seniors --- for the previous night’s home scrimmage with Keenan was a step in the right direction for his program.

While many schools in the state inflate their preseason numbers by bringing in junior varsity players for camp, North Central does not have that luxury. Drakeford said that help is on the way.

“It’s a real good sign,” he said of the numbers in the Knights’ varsity preseason camp, “plus, I know there are at least 20 kids that will play jayvee who aren’t here yet because they can’t get a ride to practice. Those are kids who, I kind of wish would have been here; there are some big linemen in the group who could possibly play varsity but, if you’re not here, you just can’t play on Friday nights.

“We have some kids that are coming into the program who will help make us a lot better.  Again, we want to build a program. We don’t want to have a good team just this year.”

Ever since North Central opened its doors in 1979, its football coaches have scoured the hallways in search of new players to add to the roster. In actuality, recruiting members of the student body has been going on in schools of all sizes for generations. NC, whose athletic program has flip-flopped between being the class A and class AA ranks over the years, has, like almost all schools, potential student-athletes not playing a sport who only need to be asked.

Drakeford and his staff have seen students who, potentially, could help their football program in physical education classes or, just wandering through the halls. One target was too big to miss. When Drakeford laid eyes on him, he had to gauge the young man’s interest in joining the Knights’ football program.

“We have a kid here who is 6-5, 340 pounds and wears a size 18 show who (was) a freshman. I asked him, ‘What do you like to do?” he told me that he loved art. I said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be special to get a scholarship to college for art? And, why not play football, too?’” said the retired Super Bowl winning defensive back with the San Francisco 49ers of his conversation with the young man last year.

“You don’t see too many 6-foot-5, 340-pound kids walking through the hallways; I don’t care if it’s a 4A or, 5A school. You just want to give those kids an opportunity to come out and see what it’s like. Every kid is different, obviously.”

Did Drakeford convince the young man to come out for football?

“No, I didn’t. I wish I did,” Drakeford said with that familiar smile spreading across his face. “He’s a rising sophomore, though, and I’ll still talk to him. Maybe, he’ll come out and play jayvee ball for us and get his feet wet and could possibly play for the varsity next year.”

Drakeford’s sales pitch to teenagers is simple. He asks them what activities they like to do and why they do what they do away from the school building. Case in point was the aforementioned young man’s affinity for art. From there, the conversation dovetails into what playing football or, any sport, for that matter, can do for them not only during their high school years but when they make their way into the real world when their school days have come and gone.

“We have kids here, big kids, who are just not playing football. We have skill kids who I see when I go out into the gymnasium for P.E. class. They may not have been asked to play before,” he said. “They may have played (youth) football but once they got to middle school or high school they have not continued to play for one reason or another. 

“It’s my goal, it’s my job, to try and get them to play. We don’t want to force them to play but, we want to give them the opportunity to play because, you never know, it may change their life.”

Change is already coming to North Central. When a coaching switch is made, there is usually talk about changing the culture of the program. That was tough for Drakeford and company to do last season given having just four senior players. With nine in the fold in 2018, things could be different for a team coming off a 2-8 campaign and a program looking for its first winning season since 2003.

 “The culture here is starting to change because, I think, this group of seniors understands how important it is to start to win some ballgames and not just be in the games and be a part of the team,” Drakeford said. “They want to win. They haven’t had that here in so long and, someone needs to start that tradition. They’re looking forward to that challenge. I think we’re on the right path.”

In order to turn the corner to brighter Friday nights, the process is expedited by winning games. Before that, however, there are hours of legwork which go into getting the program pointed in the direction to where Drakeford wants it to be headed.

“First, you have to start winning but, before that, the kids have to start believing in the coaches. When we say “Be here at a certain time,” the coaches need to be here at a certain time … they need to be prepared. When the kids start to see that, they start taking accountability among themselves, as opposed to waiting for the coaches to get on them,” he said.

“Our seniors this year have taken leadership and said that ‘This is our team. We want to take responsibility for it and we want to take charge.’ 

“Our coaches, including myself, have welcomed that with open arms and have said, ‘If you want this, then this is what you have to do.’ We gave them a list and they’ve accepted the challenge. Things are going well, so far. We just have to keep going in the right direction.”

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