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2023 was filled with crazy crimes, hall of fame mug shots, local headlines that grabbed the eyes of the world, and one meth’d up situation after another.
In spite of all the insanity, the top story of the year is overwhelmingly positive. It’s the Coffee Trojans football team’s undefeated state championship season. Hands down. No discussion. No debate.
It’s the biggest Coffee County story of the year. It’s the best Coffee County story of the year. And it’s one that won’t soon be eclipsed.
I’ve said it several times and I’ll say it several more: I never ever thought the Trojans would win a state football championship. We’ve had some great teams. We’ve had some great players. We’ve had some great opportunities. But something always happens — something improbable, unexplainable, unfathomable — that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. I’m not the only who felt this way. But I may be the only one who is willing to admit it.
The season began with a pleasant surprise — a 38-13 throttling of the Tift County Blue Devils at home in week one. I thought Tift would be better than they were last year and put up some kind of a fight. Didn’t happen.
I also thought Bainbridge would give us some trouble. They showed a little fight but at the end of the night, they were outmatched as well. That made me sit up and think, We really do have a pretty good football team.
Bolles gave us the most trouble in week three. They had a strong first half but faded in the third and fourth quarters. Then came four shutouts over five games, including a 21-0 win over 7A Richmond Hill on the road. Greenbrier didn’t put up much of a fight, either.
That set up the game everyone had been waiting on — a showdown with the defending state champion Ware County Gators in Waycross with the region title on the line. Tensions were high. So were expectations. But the same scenario had played out in 2022 and Ware County had snuffed our region championship hopes pretty quickly.
This year, however, was different. Coffee kept Ware out of the end zone and dismantled the Gators 28-5 in front of a stunned home crowd.
As the Trojans moved through the playoffs, easily dispatching one opponent after another (and, finally, at home for three straight weeks), my thought processes began to change. I tried to fight it. I didn’t want to let my guard down only to get crushed yet again.
But this team felt different. There was something unique about the 2023 Trojans, something that I hadn’t detected in other teams. No, we didn’t have Division I players sprinkled throughout the roster. No, we didn’t have any players attracted individual attention except for senior running back Fred Brown, who finished the season as the GHSA’s top back.
What we did have, though, is a group of players who played almost flawlessly together. They never quit, never doubted themselves, and never let anything going on around them distract them from the task at hand. As a result, they just kept winning. And winning. And winning some more.
As the season wore on, I began to to notice something else: Our community was uniting behind the Coffee Trojans. Coffee County is frustratingly divided most of the time. It doesn’t seem to matter what positive outcome takes place — someone or some group has something negative to say. We’ve had major events in Coffee County. Someone always tries to disparage it. Locals have done well on a variety of stages in a variety of platforms. The naysayers come out of the woodwork. We’ve had community church services and revivals, some of which have drawn big crowds. Some segment of the hopelessly divided faith community refuses to buy in.
This instance was different. As the Trojans kept winning, more people came to the table. Some people called it the bandwagon. I like to think of it as something else — we’d all read this script before. We’d all seen it fizzle out in the most painful way possible. But this season had a different feel. This team had a different swagger. Theirs was a quite confidence but it was palpable.
People from all walks of life, all socio-economic statuses, all levels of education were behind this team. They cheered together. They sat with each other in restaurants and talked Coffee football. They gave high-fives and hugged each other in the stands during games. The social media warriors were as scarce as they’ve ever been.
Something special was happening, on and off the field.
In the semifinals, Coffee went on the first road trip of the playoffs — to Cartersville, where the Trojans’ season had ended two out of the last three years. As they had been all year, the Trojans were unfazed by the enormity of the moment and took care of the Purple Hurricanes 33-18.
The stands that night were full of Trojans. Coffee fans traveled together, they ate together, they celebrated together.
This was different. Very different.
The early evening of December 13, 2023, I stood on the sidelines at Mercedes Benz Stadium as the final seconds ticked of the clock. In spite of a tense final seven or so minutes, the Trojans had exorcised their demons and defeated the Creekside Seminoles 31-14 for their first-ever state title. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.
I had work to do but I couldn’t move. I turned around and looked at the stands — 4,000 or more screaming fans in maroon, gold, and white were jumping, yelling, crying. It was a moment unlike any I’ve had in my 51 years in Coffee County.
This football season, we showed we could work together. We could lay aside our differences and the preconceived notions that had been keeping us divided for decades.
It was a beautiful moment that has continued in the aftermath of the state title run. Douglas and Coffee County ended 2023 in the best way possible.
For that I am thankful.
And that is why the 2023 state football championship is the year’s top story.
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