Heart-broken LaGrange football family set for Saturday game
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
When Matt Napier arrived at LaGrange High as the new head football coach, one of the first players he reached out to was someone he knew well.
Trae Cole was a freshman at Callaway High in 2018, and at the time Napier was the team’s offensive coordinator.
“I’ve known him since he was a freshman when he was at Callaway,” Napier said. “He’s not a new kid to me. He was the first kid when I got here that I went straight to. I knew he was a good player and a good kid. I had him lead some
of the stuff we were doing in the offseason to show the other kids how it was supposed to be done. The connection to him was special.”
As the summer went along and the preseason morphed into the regular season, that connection and relationship only strengthened, and Napier’s respect and appreciation for Cole continued to grow.
Cole was a driving force and a key player on a team that has enjoyed a dramatic turnaround season, and with two regular-season games remaining has already clinched a state-playoff berth for the first time since 2014.
On Thursday afternoon, LaGrange wrapped up its final practice of the week, one day before a scheduled showdown with the rival Troup Tigers.
Later that night, Napier received a call, and the news was tragic and devastating.
Cole, who just a few hours earlier was participating in practice with his teammates, had been killed in a car wreck. Soon the word spread to the other members of the LaGrange football family.
Tears were shed, and hugs where shared.
On Friday morning, LaGrange’s heart-broken players and coaches gathered in the school’s indoor practice facility to grieve, and to share their remembrances of someone who meant so much to those who know him.
“When you first hear something like that, you don’t even think about a ballgame anymore,” Napier said. “The first thought goes to that kid and his family, and our football family, and our school family here. We definitely forgot about the game for a while and are trying to love on each other.”
LaGrange was supposed to play Troup on Friday, but the consensus among players and coaches was that the game couldn’t be played that day.
Soon, the discussion was whether the game should be played at all, and the players overwhelmingly made their feelings known on that matter.
The players wanted to play, so the decision was made to postpone it to Saturday, and Napier reached out to Troup head coach Tanner Glisson to see if that could happen. Glisson quickly agreed, so the game was re-scheduled for Saturday at 6 p.m. at Callaway Stadium.
“I let the kids lead me in what they wanted to do,” Napier said. When you’re emotionally broken, you don’t know where to head next in uncertain times. I didn’t want to force them to do anything they weren’t ready to do. So, I left it up to them to let me know what they wanted to do. All of them wanted to play and honor Trae’s life, and his membership to our family and our team by playing another game, and going out there and honoring him and representing him. They made that pretty clear pretty quickly.”
Napier is grateful to the folks at Troup, including Glisson, for being so accommodating and understanding.
“I can’t think them enough, and their ability to work with us,” Napier said. “I think character shines through in situations like this, and their character is shining through for sure.”
On Friday, on a day where the players would usually be mentally preparing themselves to play a game, they instead camped out in the indoor practice facility for the duration of the school day.
While the mood was somber, Napier felt it was healthy for the players to talk, to share, to remember a friend and teammate.
“We talked about the characteristics that he had,” Napier said. “How would you describe him? He had an infectious personality. He was always smiling, always laughing. He enjoyed life. He lived it to the fullest. He was a big ball of energy. He’d give you that grin, and you couldn’t help but love him. All of them have a special place in your heart. He was one of the guys you loved, and he had that charismatic smile, a charismatic personality. He enjoyed living life. He was the kind of kid you wanted to be around.”
On Saturday, the players will have to find a way to play a football game in light of the devastation they’re all feeling.
It’s an important game, and not just because it’s a showdown between cross-town rivals.
LaGrange (6-2 overall) is 5-1 in Region 2-AAAA, while Troup (4-3 overall) is 4-1 in the region.
While both teams have already qualified for the state playoffs, there’s plenty on the line, with the winner of the game remaining in contention for the region championship.
“A lot of times people come out of the woodwork to watch this game, even if both teams aren’t any good,” Napier said. “It makes it extra special that both teams are good and fighting for spots in the playoffs, and even the region championship is still out there for both teams, and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Things like that give you extra motivation on top of it being a rivalry game.”
Napier has plenty of respect for Troup, which has won four consecutive games after opening the season with a three-game losing streak.
“Athletically they’re as gifted as anybody that we play,” Napier said. “They’re talented in the skill positions. They run really well, and have explosive players in the secondary and at all the skill positions.”
Napier is especially impressed with quarterback Taeo Todd, who has had an exceptional freshman season.
“He’s super-talented,” Napier said. “I watched Taeo growing up in middle school and recreation football, and he’s been the best player on the field his entire career. That’ll keep you up at night trying to figure out a way to stop a guy like that. I know our kids are eager for the challenge and are excited to play the game. They can score a lot of points. They’ve got the players to do it.”
As for LaGrange, the turnaround this season has been a dramatic one.
After winning a combined six games from 2016 to 2019, LaGrange has already matched that win total through eight games this season.
It all started in June when teams were able to get together for the first time following a Coronavirus shutdown.
“I can’t think that group of kids enough for their commitment,” Napier said. “There were times where you could have used the Covid stuff as a crutch to say I don’t want to come to work out today. This group of kids just kept showing up all summer long, through the ups and downs, the quarantines, those guys just kept showing up when they were allowed to.”
One of those players, senior defensive lineman Lataurus Swindle, said everyone on the team made a commitment to be as prepared as possible when the season began.
“We worked hard during the summer, and we didn’t give up because of the Coronavirus,” Swindle said. “We couldn’t let that stop us. We practiced hard, we worked hard out hard. I think that’s made a big impact.”
LAGRANGE VS. TROUP
WHEN: Saturday, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Callaway Stadium
RECORDS: LaGrange (6-2 overall, 5-1 in Region 2-AAAA); Troup (4-3 overall, 4-1 in Region 2-AAAA)