It just may be the best kept secret in town.
They’re no threat to famed local eatery Aubrey’s just yet, but Teresa Prestridge, Heather Breazeale and Brandi Denman are just getting started.
Fundraising is vital for youth football programs like the Southside Eagles. Operating Grasshopper-, Pee Wee- and Midget-level teams in Parks & Recreation-sponsored leagues can run into the thousands of dollars each season.
Teams in small communities like the Lanier area of South Blount County, where the Eagles are based, can really be up against it with only so many doors to knock on for help. For Denman, Breazeale and Prestridge, who each have sons playing for Southside, it was time to start thinking outside the box.
From practices to games, the trio began to take note how much time they spent working the concession stand at the old Lanier High School football stadium. Since they were going to be there anyway, why not open every night, spice up the menu a bit and make the stand a place people would want to stop by in the evenings if all they wanted was a bite to eat?
The franchise rights are pending.
“Lots of people eat at our concession stand five nights a week,” Prestridge said. “We just have good food -- good food and good people.”
It’s not really work “because my heart’s in the program,” Breazeale said.
That’s basically the story for the Southside coaches, with the programs at Eagleton and Rockford facing many of the same challenges to continue passing along the game.
The high school was the hub of the Lanier community before closing in 1979, its students absorbed into newly-opened William Blount. Lanier Elementary remains. The Southside football teams carry the Lanier colors and nickname, right down to the wings on the sides of the helmet.
Southside got new uniforms last season. All together, outfitting the Eagles three teams with jerseys and pants - and the pads to go in them - came in at a cost of $4,800, Southside midgets coach Eric Rhyno said. Each helmet worn by a Southside player costs $85, and, between the three teams, there are 135 on hand for the season.
“I don’t know what size helmet they’ll need next year,” Rhyno said, “so you could have 40 helmets just sitting around, and you can’t use them.”
One set of pads per player is never enough, either.
“They’re like socks in the laundry,” Rhyno said. “They just come up missing.”
This fiscal year, Southside’s overall operating budget is $10,000. Some of the area’s bigger programs can afford to spend a lot more. Each year, each of the league’s nine programs must pay $1,600 to cover the cost of officials.
“This is the first year we have no debt,” Rhyno said.
Then there’s the task of finding enough players to fill Southside’s shiny, green-and-gold uniforms.
Football at the youth level differs little from its high school counterpart in one significant respect: the rich get richer as more and more players flock to their programs; struggling teams contract, more often than not at the expense of losing some of their better players.
“The first year I coached, I had no returning players,” Rhyno said.
“Twenty-five years ago, Southside was the dominant team in this league,” Eagles pee wees coach Ray Bryant said. “Now, we’re struggling to survive.”
The Eagleton and Rockford midget teams fielded rosters of 17 players each this season. The league maximum is 35 per team. While those numbers are affected by players who choose to play at the middle schools they’re zoned for instead, the shrinking roster size of teams like the Rockford and Eagleton grasshoppers is not something the league takes lightly, said Everett Recreation Center director Brook Hemphill, who oversees youth football for the Maryville/Alcoa/Blount County Parks & Recreation Commission.
There are rules in place to prevent players from moving from team to team each season, he said. Once a player commits to a program, he must remain there for the next four seasons unless granted a release by that team’s coach. Few oppose players who want to leave. Mentors like Bryant, entering his 26th season coaching area youth football, go a long way in ensuring few want to go elsewhere, Hemphill said.
“Ray is as good as gold,” he said. “There are some of these coaches who are out here because of the kids - not because they have a kid playing.”
The Eagles midget team reached the Blount Today Super Bowl last season, falling, 18-12 in overtime, to Friendsville in the American Conference title game, but there’s still a ways to go before Southside is where he would like it to be, Rhyno said. How the Eagles get there, he said, is important.
“I’d like to get it back to that level where we’re competing, but I’d like to do it our way,” Rhyno said. “It’s not going to be win at all costs.”
It’s easy to forget they’re dealing with kids, Bryant said. Teaching a player how to tackle properly isn’t the only thing to be stressed at this point.
“I try to teach them that you have to be committed to something, and you don’t quit,” Bryant said. “You just stay with it. You keep doing it, and you don’t quit.”
Football taught him a lot about character and discipline, Rhyno, a West Palm Beach, Fla., native, said.
“Kids just really crave structure,” he said.
It’s that aspect of the game, not the blocking and tackling, that he most wants to pass on to his players.
“If I can make a difference in one kid’s life,” Rhyno said, “that’s what makes it work for me.”