He strode down the hill toward the practice field the very picture of bearing.
The medals and ribbons on his uniform designated someone of importance as he drew close.
Don Sentell and Lewis “Junior” Masingo hadn’t seen Lt. Col. Jeff Garland in more than 30 years. The Garland they remembered was a combative kid, so much so he remains the only player Sentell and Masingo have ever cut from their Maryville Rebs youth football team. It’s a decision Masingo finds tough to talk about even to this day.
“We said, ‘Look, Jeff. I’m sorry,’” Masingo said. “’You’re not going to play for us. You’re too disruptive. You’re just going to have to go home.’”
Thirty years later, Garland was back. What he said, after first informing Sentell and Masingo who he was, pretty much captures why they do what they do, Masingo said.
“He said, ‘I didn’t recognize what you guys were trying to do,’” he said.
It’s never been about winning, Sentell said. Sure, the Rebs, who claimed their fifth consecutive Parks and Recreation Super Bowl championship last weekend, have won their share. The Rebs are 50-0 over the last five years and a truly astonishing 108-2 over the last 11.
“We’ve had an unbelievable run,” Sentell said.
The wins are one measure of success, he said. Kids like Garland, who go on to do great things with their lives, are a better one.
“I’ve got kids that have gone through my program that have become doctors and lawyers,” Sentell said. “Some have not turned out so great, but you love them all.”
Sentell capped his 46th year as Rebs coach with last week’s title. Every step of the way, Masingo has been there as his defensive coordinator. It’s the product of a friendship that began when they themselves were kids, Sentell said. Their success as coaches has been merely a byproduct.
“We’ve been best friends since we were 8 years olds,” Sentell said. “We went to college together. We ran together. We were best friends, and we stayed that way.”
Even as rivals.
While Sentell has been at the Maryville helm for 46 years, he’s been coaching youth football in Blount County for a bit longer. In the late 1960s, he helped former youth coach Buck Deacon found the Eagleton program. His good friend and former Maryville College teammate Masingo was then coach of the Maryville Baby Rebs.
In the fall of 1968, their teams met in the Super Bowl to decide the championship.
The Baby Rebs, as the Rebs were then known, rolled early and took a 7-0 lead at the half. Eagleton would rally, though, storming back in the second half to claim the title, 14-7.
It remains the only time Masingo and Sentell have ever faced each other from opposing sidelines. The next season, Sentell took over the Rebs program, with Masingo staying on as his assistant.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Sentell said.
“I’ve always liked defense better than offense,” Masingo said. “It was more or less, ‘You take the offense and I’ll take the defense,’ and it’s been that way for some time.”
The understand the success Sentell and Masingo have enjoyed through the years you must first understand the men, Parks and Recreation youth football director Brook Hemphill said, with the affable Sentell the prime mover.
Sentell has long been more than simply a football coach. Through the years, he arranged rides to practice for those who needed transportation. When one of his players didn’t have anywhere to go after school, he’d bring them home to play with his own children.
“Most people brought home dogs and cats,” Sentell said. “I brought home kids.”
Some of them, like former Rebs and Maryville High star Toki McCray, were at the house so often Sentell’s young grandchildren often thought they were relatives.
“The players mean more to him than football,” Maryville College senior Kelsi Muckleroy, Sentell’s granddaughter, said. “He coaches character.”
Many of them, like McCray, who would sign with North Carolina State after high school, return to the program years later to pass on the tradition to the next collection of Rebs.
“The thing that sticks out for me is he’s in it for the kids,” Hemphill said. “You know he’s in it for the kids because he doesn’t have any kids or grandkids still in the program.”
When Sentell and Masingo began their run with the Rebs, only four youth teams - Alcoa, Eagleton, the Maryville Bears and Rebs - were in operation. There weren’t any leagues for the 7- and 8-year-old Grasshoppers or the 9-10 PeeWees. It was one group, with 9 through 12 all thrown in together.
Right away, Sentell said he could see there was a problem.
“A 9-year-old can’t compete with a 12-year-old,” he said. “I think it’s dangerous for a 9-year-old to compete with a 12-year-old.”
The solution was a PeeWee league for the 9s and 10s. As communities like Walland and Rockford added Midget teams, the 11- and 12-year-old age group the Rebs compete in, they began adding PeeWee programs right along with them.
Ten years ago, the Grasshopper division was added. When the Parks and Rec season began in August, 27 teams over the three leagues took the field, encompassing approximately 700 players.
The great thing about coaching at the youth level isn’t finding the next high school or college star, Sentell said, although Masingo and he have certainly produced their share.
Maryville High School’s football team won its 70th consecutive game with last week’s regular-season finale. The four-time defending state champions host Cleveland in a Class 4A playoff opener on Friday.
Masingo holds Maryville High coach George Quarles in high regard.
“George Quarles does so much with good football players to make them great football players,” Masingo said. “George is the best football coach I’ve ever seen.”
He’s also working with many of the players Sentell and Masingo helped develop. Defensive star Justin Smith, receivers Chris Jordan, Zane Winders, Mason Trenda, and Will Lairamore, quarterback Aaron Chamberlain, freshman running back Jacob West and offensive lineman Dylan Beets are all former Rebs, just to name a few. To watch them on Fridays at the high school is a special feeling, Masingo said.
“Every Friday night at home games, some kid will come up and say, ‘You don’t know me, do you?’” Masingo said.
The names may blur with the years, he said, but never the most important thing he hopes they learned as Rebs.
“We’ve never told a team, in all these years, to go win a ball game,” Masingo said. “We tell them to go out there and play as well as you can play, and the winning will take care of itself.”
Spectators are often surprised at the complexity of play at the Grasshopper, PeeWee and Midget levels. The Rebs run many of the same plays the high school does, albeit on a much scaled down version.
“They may not be pro, but it’s pretty good for that age kid,” Sentell said.
Just how much a 12-year-old can retain about football is no where better reflected than with Maryville Southerners coach Joey Winders. The Southerners are the PeeWee feeder program for the Rebs.
Back in 1968, Winders was a member of the Rebs team that fell to Sentell’s Eagleton squad in the title game.
“You think 12-year-olds don’t remember this stuff?” Winders said. “I can remember it like it was yesterday.”
There’s a reason for that kind of thinking, Masingo said.
“We have a saying,” he said, “’Once a Reb, always a Reb.’”
Even if, as Garland proved, it’s only for a little while.