STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. -- In a world of misplaced priorities and snap judgments, it's easy to dismiss Stephenson High School as the program that can't win a state championship.
But coach Ron Gartrell and his staff prefer to see a bigger picture, one that includes bringing focus, purpose and meaning to the lives of many young men.
You don't have 29 seniors signing letters of intent to play college football, as the Jaguars did last week, because you're doing it all wrong, nor because those young men are all world-class athletes. Clearly, there is a promotional machine and a well-oiled academic support system in place.
Stephenson, located in a predominantly African-American community 18 miles east of Atlanta, has routinely churned out college players since opening 14 years ago, including 60 or so in the past three years. But the Jaguars ramped up this year, as volunteer assistants Corey Johnson and Rodrick Clark took over most recruiting duties and went into hyperdrive promoting players to college coaches.
Johnson, a private businessman, and Clark played for Gartrell years ago and refuse to focus on state championships. "We haven't won a state championship, but at the end of the day you can't pay tuition with state championship rings."
Perhaps more important than the quantity of student-athletes Stephenson is sending to college are the testimonies of the players whose lives have been set on a different, more positive, course.
Take Myles Ashmon, who signed with Fort Valley State, a Division II school in middle Georgia. The defensive end earned a full scholarship at the historically black university, which is quite a feat for somebody who a few years ago seemed all but doomed.
"I was robbing, smoking weed, selling weed, all kinds of stuff that I really wasn't supposed to do," he said. "Ninth grade, they told me I couldn't try out because I ended up coming out too late. Tenth grade, I tried out but I was ineligible because my grades were messed up from 9th grade. That really hurt my self-esteem. I thought it was over for me."
Ashmon's life had turned down the wrong road when a couple of things helped turn him back.
First, a very rude awakening that had nothing to do with Gartrell, Johnson or Clark.
"And after a while, I'd seen how a lot of my friends and my brothers' friends were going, and one of my brothers [Wimberly Baker] had passed away. It was a robbery that went wrong," said Ashmon, the youngest of three boys in his family. "He was selling drugs, and the dude that was robbing him thought he had a gun when he was pulling the drugs out of his pocket, and he got shot three times in the chest."
That was in 2007, the pivotal year in Ashmon's listing young life.
"That right there was pretty much enough for me to open my eyes and see that this life is … either going to take me to jail or the grave," he said. "That's not nowhere I want to be, especially when I found out I had a daughter on the way."
About this time Clark, who works as a deputy in the nearby Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, entered the picture.
He and Johnson played in the late 1980s and early '90s under Gartrell, when Gartrell coached at another DeKalb County high school, Shamrock.
"I was driving down the road, and I always saw him walking," said Clark, who was a walk-on running back at Tennessee-Chattanooga. "One day I told him to hop in and asked if his parents were home. I broke it down for them. I said, 'I don't know what your son is doing, but the word on the street is that he's going the wrong way, so we need to get this together. '
"I explained that I'm in law enforcement, and I see this all the time, and we don't want to see people on TV saying, 'If somebody could have saved my son ' And I didn't want to one day be saying, 'Hey, I saw the kid walking down the street, and I could have helped.' It's better to be told early than to be told when somebody comes knocking on your door with bad news."
In the spring of Ashmon's sophomore year, in 2008, he went out for football again, and made the junior varsity, where he would spend his junior season in a probationary period.
He had made it in, part of a program that has been ranked in the top 10 in Georgia at one point or another in each of the past 10 seasons, and in the final top 10 seven times in that span. Seven times in the past decade Stephenson has won region titles, and the Jaguars have produced dozens of college players, though never at a rate like this senior class.
Staying in the program, which has created its own gravity, would be another matter.
"Our program has been so successful that everybody wants to be a part of it because you're taking a chance of being part of a huge victory over [Martin Luther King High] or another big school, playing on national TV, getting all the ink in the paper, maybe getting your picture on the front page they don't want to miss out on that," Gartrell said.
Gartrell also reminds his students of the responsibility that comes with being a part of the program.
"This morning [in a 6:30 a.m. workout] I spoke about academics and senior leadership. I told them: 'You're the ones who are going to make sure they're not walking around with their pants hanging down, you're the ones who've got to make sure that your teammates are not in the hallway when they're supposed to be in class, you're the ones who at parties have to make sure your teammates are acting like you're supposed to act, because we take the idea that you're Stephenson football wherever you go.'"
The man with the plan
Once you're in, and often even if you're not, Stephenson coaches, teachers and administrators are very much there. This structure has been good for Ashmon; good for hundreds of young men.
Gartrell is a 50-year-old barrel of a man with a little salt in his hair and beard. He's been at Stephenson since it opened 14 years ago and has a record of 117-45 at the school (152-91 in 22 seasons overall). His mix of urgency and patience seems a perfect fit in the community.
The little slice of Stone Mountain that sends its children to Stephenson is middle to lower-middle class. These are working-class people. Gartrell is all about a blue-collar approach.
He's quick to credit those in his background, and will for hours -- if you let him -- sing the praises of his hometown and alma mater, old Washington-Wilkes High. Washington is a small-town school about 90 miles east of Atlanta, where coach Butch Brooks gave Gartrell and his longtime defensive coordinator, Donald Sellers Sr., their first shot at coaching.
"That's where I played, and coached, and learned a lot about what I do," he said. "The plan [Brooks] put in place, when I got this job, we put in the same type of plan. Where did Butch Brooks get his plan? From the late Nick Hyder at Valdosta."
Brooks, who is retired, coached at Valdosta under the legendary Hyder, who won seven state titles and three mythical national titles with a record of 249-36-2 from 1974-95 at Valdosta -- the nation's winningest high school program.
Three Stephenson players signed with Kentucky; four with Division II Tusculum, in Tennessee; and three with Concordia, an NAIA school.
They come well-prepared, physically and otherwise.
"The one thing that Stephenson has going for them that most of the great programs have, whether you're talking about St. Aquinas in Florida or Byrnes in South Carolina or Mater Dei in California -- aside from a great coaching staff -- is a track record," said Middle Tennessee State assistant Willie Simmons, who recruited cornerback Chris Sharpe to play for MTSU.
"When you have alumni that come back, and you see guys from Stephenson in starting lineups across the country, there's a foundation for those guys to follow."
The Jaguars have sent many players to major colleges, including Reggie Ball Jr., the starting quarterback at Georgia Tech from 2003-06; former Georgia defensive back DeMario Minter, who was drafted by the Browns; former Tulane linebacker Anthony Cannon, who was drafted by the Lions; and Florida senior defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who was a member of two national championship teams.
Perry Riley and Kelvin Sheppard went from Stephenson to LSU, where they won a national title in 2007.
Simmons gave special credit to Ball's father, Reggie Sr., another volunteer assistant who is the Jaguars' strength and conditioning coach and a respected trainer in Atlanta.
The Stephenson coaches place great value in taking stock of players, or, "breaking them down," as Clark likes to say.
"You assess every kid, break it down and tell them where they need to be, not saying that they can't get better through working out over the summer and doing this camp. You're not going to tell a kid what he can't do," he said. "We have to break them down with grades, and everything off the field, and once you tell a kid what you see the reality is, they tend to accept that.
"Kenny Ladler, for example, always had the academics, but we told him he needed to really hit the weights because one day he was going to have to pass the 'eye test' with D-I coaches."
Coaches give players and parents their view on what types of schools to target, from Division I to NAIA.
With help from the booster club and fundraisers, the Jaguars raise money to send players to summer camps that generally match their projected range of ability and academic prowess. Some kids last summer went to camp at Alabama, Georgia, Louisville and Troy, while others went to camps at Georgia Southern, Elon, Furman and even Division III Shorter College.
"At the end of the day, these kids have to be able to start their life, go to college, get an education, work in the real world," Clark said.
That involves attention to details, like class work. Often, players go to extended study hall after school.
"I think we've had a group of kids that we use to influence each other academically," Gartrell said. "We have a nice study table we cut into our practice time by making a commitment to academics. They also use that time to go to their teachers which in the long run really has helped our kids.
"We use the old cliché that a lot of parents use: finish your homework and then you can go out and play. Finish your work before you go to practice."
All this forms a sense of camaraderie that creates kinetic motion, an energy that pushes itself.
"Nobody wants to be set apart," Johnson said of the tendency for marginal students to be incentivized by their peers to pick up their academic pace. "If you've got a heavy group of kids doing their work and getting good grades and test scores, other kids are not going to want to be separated."
The scholarship machine
Finally, there is promotion.
Johnson and Clark spearhead that effort, investing thousands of hours in the past year not only contacting college coaches, but staying in touch with players and parents about academics.
"The most convincing thing was probably Coach Johnson," said Fort Valley assistant Glen Holmes, who offered scholarships to four Stephenson players before landing Ashmon. "That guy was instrumental. He was extremely persistent in making sure he got his kids' names and tapes and transcripts out more than any coach I've ever seen. He was the motor that moved that thing."
MTSU's Simmons echoed the thought.
"There wasn't a day that went by where myself and hundreds of coaches across the country didn't get an e-mail or text or a call about the accomplishments of those players," he said.
The end result is an easier life for Gartrell, many more opportunities for young men, and a program whose success feeds itself by attracting others to it.
"They've [Johnson and Clark] changed my life," Gartrell said. "My stress level during January and early February was so high [in years past] that it was hard. Now, I just point [college coaches] to these guys and say, 'Whatever you want to know, those guys got it.' "
All of this fits nicely with the vision of Stephenson principal Brian Bolden, an unabashedly proud educator who hung a banner in the lobby of the 1,800-student school that reads, "Welcome to the No. 1 high school in America."
"Rick Pitino once said he had the hardest-working team in America. Whether that was true or not wasn't the point; they believed it. We believe we're No. 1," Bolden said. "I want to lead the nation in scholarship opportunities, academic, athletic and in the arts. I'm proud of these coaches. You talk about seeing a vision, and believing "
Here, Bolden pointed to a framed poster in a hallway between the school cafeteria and auditorium. In it was a barren field, a man in a suit in the middle and a hazy photo of the Magic Kingdom overlaid on it.
"That's my idol," Bolden said. "Walt Disney. Where others saw dirt, he saw a castle. Where others saw dirt, these coaches see castles."
Myles Ashmon and the Jaguars are building their own castles, with foundational help from not just the coaches and staff, but also from each other.
"My parents knew I was going down the wrong road my mom [Machell Ashmon], especially, she had been through so much with my two older brothers," he said. "She couldn't really discipline me the way she needed to because she was tired. It was like she couldn't take it no more. When Coach Clark came to my house, it really helped.
"I hated to see my mom hurt. None of her other sons graduated from high school, and now look at her baby, graduating from high school with a scholarship. And I'm going to graduate from college, too."
Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.