Heritage High School football coach Jason McGeorge started the meeting at 3 p.m. July 25, an hour before the first minicamp of the team's first season. His office, the size of a small dorm room, could barely hold McGeorge's eight assistants.
The coaches listened as McGeorge touched on the usual topics, especially his message about building a foundation for a successful season. McGeorge, 38, was talking about a different kind of foundation - for a football program that had not yet played a single game.
Heritage, entering its second year of existence, will play its first varsity football game at 7 p.m. today at home against Holly Springs. The school doesn't have a senior class in its enrollment of at least 1,300. The trophy case is bare. McGeorge knows this season - with the help of parents and the community - is the first step in an effort to create a heritage through high school football.
The school, in southern Wake Forest, was built in 2009 because of the large number of students enrolled in neighboring Wake Forest-Rolesville and Wakefield high schools. Heritage has accepted students from as far away as Knightdale.
Playing football could be a challenge.
"Be adjustable and encouraging," McGeorge told his assistants in the meeting. "This is a year we're going have to do a lot of that."
Only 25 days before Game One. That's all the time McGeorge and his staff had to prepare teenagers, many of whom had never played a down of varsity football.
Eager and anxious
McGeorge, hired in February of last year, had waited 10 years as an assistant at Leesville for his chance to lead a football team. Football has been his life. His father, Richard, played nine seasons for the Green Bay Packers and is an assistant at Shaw University. Jason McGeorge says he's ready for anything.
"When I first got into coaching I was one of those ranting types," McGeorge says. "Through my father I learned patience."
He'll need it. By 4 p.m., 85 players, all dressed in T-shirts - none with the name Heritage on the chest - were in the locker room. Some were eager; others were anxious. The first day was about teaching rather than evaluating, though it was easy to see that the team lacked size.
How do you form the huddle? Where does the tight end line up? What's the difference between a post route and a slant?
One thing everyone could do was run, and McGeorge made his team do plenty of sprints.
"We have to outwork everyone," McGeorge told the Huskies.
At least one thing was clear by the end of the first day: There were only 60 helmets for the 85 players.
The booster club
The slender boy hoping to be the quarterback, Ryan Varner, had a helmet and pads. His mother, Kathleen Varner, was determined to help the others.
Kathleen Varner is president of the booster club. Though she has two jobs, she spends almost all of her free time either talking to parents or asking businesses to sponsor Heritage's athletics.
A few years ago, Ryan, 14, would have been in the same school as his older brother, Joey Varner, 17, who attends WF-R. Now, Ryan is just trying to learn McGeorge's offense. Unlike his teammates, he didn't head home after the first week of practice ended; he went to the concession stand to help his mother.
There, Kathleen Varner was selling food, drinks and season passes to parents at a soccer event. Even before he's played a game, Ryan understands the importance of the booster club.
"They are going to promote and back us," he said. "It makes us feel like we have support."
For Kathleen Varner, and her team of volunteers, each day is about finding funds. This economy is tough, and some businesses are saying "thanks, but no thanks." Geography presents a challenge, too. Heritage, which will play in the Cap Eight 4-A conference, is wedged between the two dominant schools in the area: powerhouse WF-R and Wakefield, a program on the rise.
"Some businesses don't have kids that go to our school," Varner said. "We need sponsorships. We need them badly."
Varner is creative, and she presented small business owners with a plethora of sponsorship options. By Aug. 8, the Huskies - all 100 of them by now - had helmets and pads.
But Varner knew she needed more sponsors for team travel, meals and other expenses.
Ryan has never missed a practice. He was there the first day in July 2010 when McGeorge told the Huskies - who decided to field only a JV team last year with just freshmen and sophomores - their motto: Husky Pride.
Ryan always wanted to be a quarterback, a leader. Last season he didn't win the starting job, but he showed maturity by switching to receiver to help the Huskies.
"As a quarterback," he says, "you have to learn both positions."
In his bedroom, Ryan has a whiteboard to help him learn the Huskies' playbook. He's trying quarterback again.
'It's like glory to me'
Greg "Plucky" Clifton Jr. is one of the few who have played varsity football. Teammates love him, and coaches love him. The community talks about him.
Greg was one of the kids without a helmet the first day, but he showed his athleticism and a smile. Called Plucky after a Warner Bros. cartoon character, Clifton, 16, was a starting defensive back at Louisburg last season as a freshman.
However, Greg Clifton Sr. knew his son needed a new beginning. Greg's father believed Louisburg had bad neighborhoods and his son needed to go where something good could happen. The family moved to Wake Forest and, in June, the son needed to make a decision.
"I wanted to try something different," said Greg, who turned down WF-R for Heritage.
Greg was ready to play for McGeorge the moment he met him. He could see McGeorge's confidence and the desire in the rest of the Huskies.
"Seeing them and me together, ... it's like glory to me because I know they love the sport," he said. "This is where I'm going to be until I graduate, and I'm trying to make the best of it."
Forward and backward
At the accelerated rate Heritage was going in those first 25 days, major changes happened almost daily - some good and others challenging.
Varner, who had contacted at least 50 companies, received a call two weeks ago from Carina Veverka.
"I have a plan," said Veverka, who owns the Kona Ice parlor in town. "I want to buy a Husky Spirit sponsorship."
Another $850 to Heritage. Maybe the booster club will be fine.
On the field, the Huskies were improving. Practices started to have a rhythm. McGeorge led his team to Burlington to scrimmage against Walter M. Williams High - and to the surprise of some, the Huskies weren't overwhelmed.
Greg made tackles all over the field.
"When I see people in different uniforms," he said. "I get like almost in a rage."
The fury stopped when Greg collided with a teammate and his head hit the field. He was motionless for a few minutes. Everyone was silent. The Huskies were experiencing their first injury.
"I was surprised he got up and knew everything," Ryan said.
Greg walked off the field with symptoms of a concussion. He was on the sideline for the Pigskin Classic scrimmage last Friday. In Burlington, Ryan shared snaps at quarterback with Garrett Hudson. But at the Classic, McGeorge made his decision: Garrett would be the starter.
'One more day'
Wherever he goes, McGeorge has told his Huskies to dream big. After Tuesday's practice, the 45 varsity players went down on one knee.
"One more day of preparation, and you play varsity football," he told them. "One more day, and we're 1-0. Why not? Why can't we be? Because people don't want us to be or don't expect it? Show them we can.
"Show them we can."
It's possible. Holly Springs, a school that opened in 2007, finished 2-9 last year.
Once the ball goes in the air tonight, Greg will be smiling, ready to make his father proud. Ryan will be next to McGeorge to hear all the plays being called. Varner will be in the concession stand with Veverka near her selling Kona Ice in cups with Heritage's logo on them. And McGeorge will finally coach a high school football game.
All of them will be showing Husky Pride.
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