Wednesday, 11 December 2019 22:52

PILLAR: This season was about a lot more than just football

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Senior Dereck Barringer (20) hugs WR coach Andy Shuler following Richmond's fourth-round playoff game. Senior Dereck Barringer (20) hugs WR coach Andy Shuler following Richmond's fourth-round playoff game. Jimmy McDonald — The Richmond Observer.

The reality of Richmond’s magical playoff run and 2019 season coming to an end didn’t really hit me until Wednesday afternoon when I didn’t go meet with head coach Bryan Till for the first time since early August.

Wednesdays had become our designated meeting days to sit in his office and talk Xs and Os about the upcoming game. Most of the time our “football talk” would last no more than 15 minutes. Then the conversation, without a hitch, would always shift to school, my students and his players, how our wives and families were doing.

You know, just two guys unwinding after long days of work and practice. A lot of times, and to my benefit, Coach Till became a personal mentor to me -- offering advice about marriage, education and financial planning, how to react to certain professional situations. He became a source of knowledge one hopes to find when he’s starting out.

This is my third trip around the globe that is Raider football, and I’ve learned a lot and grown, too. And while I enjoy the games, the high-caliber offense and defense and the fans, there really isn’t anything I cherish more than my working relationship with Coach Till and his players.

These are all things that made 2019 about a lot more than just football.

During Richmond’s playoff run this season, I got text messages on a regular basis from my parents, who live in Pennsylvania, cheering on the Raiders and wishing them postseason success. “Go Raiders” my dad would send, and my mama would add “I’m praying for the team.”

And in the five years I’ve lived here, they’ve only been to one Richmond football game. So there’s not a lot of reason for them to be so invested. But they were because Raider football has a unique, uncanny ability to tap people into its insatiable aura.

An old friend of mine from high school, who is a big sports fan and still lives in Pennsylvania, chatted with me on a weekly basis about what makes the Raiders so successful. He read my articles and asked about quarterback Caleb Hood, one of several players he inquired about, and made comparisons to our high school days and current college players.

These are just a few people hundreds of miles outside of Richmond County that prove this year was about a lot more than just football.

Around the Thanksgiving holiday, I got a text message from defensive backs coach Dennis Toney inviting my wife, Jordyn, and I over for dinner with him and his wife Marrissa. When we got there, they had cooked the whole nine yards -- chicken wings, mashed potatoes, homemade mac and cheese, apple dumplings and ice cream.

And who was there to join us? About a dozen Raider football players sharing food and friendship in the home of a coach who opened his doors to spend an afternoon together. The conversation had little to do with playoff game planning, and instead, these young men were goofing around, watching YouTube videos and letting loose for a little while before preparations for Myers Park continued.

The snapshot of this short reprieve on the day before Thanksgiving showed how this season was about a lot more than just football.

Several other moments over the last 10 months dating back to spring workouts come to mind, especially when Richmond introduced its “newest Raider” Malik Covington. A fifth grader at Washington Street, Covington became an honorary player and scored a touchdown with the help of the team during the final spring practice in May.

Or there were the visits by senior players to elementary schools on game days this fall. Social media was aglow with praises by parents, family members and school faculty, and smiles beaming from the younger students as the equally overjoyed Raider players walked them to class or opened car doors. 

How about Raider Nation and the fanbase that never stops backing its boys. It’s kind of a cliche to say you hear people around town talk about “how well the football team is doing this year” or that “they’ve got a real chance at state this year.” But not in Richmond County. That talk is real and incessant and believed.

And the stands were always full on Friday nights, especially during the playoff run. I mentioned last time the Myers Park game was its own special experience -- not like anything else I’d ever witnessed at the high school level. And the fans extend far beyond the bleachers on game day -- car decals, sweatshirts around town, balloons dotting busy streets, booster club donations -- it’s all a part of the fabric woven into this community.

Win or lose, the Raiders always closed their postgame meeting on the field with Coach Till yelling “touch somebody,” and the team and coaches huddled together to recite the Lord’s prayer.

Again, these are just a few more of the things that made this season about a lot more than just football.

The lesson I’ve learned most this season (and hopefully many others have, too), the sort of underlying theme in this rather simplistic narrative, is that Richmond County and its citizens stood up in 2019 and made our community a better, more wholesome place. 

Yes, I had to make a Yung Rich reference somewhere, or this column wouldn’t be complete.

There are lots of great things happening in our community, and not just centered around the County’s lone high school football team. 

But from my vantage point, which comes from hours of watching practice, interviewing coaches and players, standing on the sidelines during games and writing dozens of stories, the Raider football team’s relationship with its fanbase became the glue that has held together this wave of success we’ve enjoyed the past five months.

Sometimes people forget that the Raiders are just kids -- 15, 16, 17 or 18-year old kids playing a game they love, for a community they love, for nothing more than for the love of the game. That’s what makes this season’s ending bittersweet.

No, the Raiders didn’t win a 4AA state championship. Yes, tears were shed and storybook careers came to an end. 

But what they did win was a revitalized relationship with their surrounding community that sees its link stronger than ever before. And that, I believe, will be the base for hopefully many more state championship banners in the future. And that's something we can all celebrate.

I’ve been an observer of Raider football since the fall of 2015, and in just a short span, Till and his philosophies, his coaching staff and the brotherhood of the players have made Richmond County a special place to live and believe in.

But for now, let’s enjoy how every member of the Raiders’ program reminded us that some things are meant to be bigger than football.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 22:52
Kyle Pillar

Sports Editor. IUP communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

Submit local sports scores to: kpillar@richmondobserver.com

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