Like warriors in waiting, football players assembled last week at Evans High School.
They eagerly stood outside the gated equipment area adjacent to the boys locker room, ready to select the protective armor which also will serve as weaponry during the rapidly approaching gridiron battles.
Evans football coach Lee Chomskis unlocked the gate last week and passed out the gear in preparation for practice; the players filed past helmets, pads, shoes and all the other essentials in the arsenal.
Seniors got first dibs on Monday, the juniors took their turn Tuesday, while the sophomores strolled in Wednesday. On Thursday the freshman made their initial foray into high school football - and had the last choice of garb.
The Georgia High School Association allows football teams to begin practice Monday, so the scene last week at Evans also was playing out across Columbia County and throughout the state.
Issuing equipment is akin to a rite of pigskin passage - and a sure sign that the 2002 prep season is just around the corner.
"All this becomes natural," junior lineman Robin Jacobs said Tuesday as he picked up his equipment at Evans. "Walking down to the field house with the gear in your hands just brings back the memory of game days, getting all hyped up."
Members of the Evans coaching staff stood by to help the players select the equipment, checking meticulously to make sure shoulder pads and helmets fit properly.
C.J. Wiltz, a junior defensive lineman and tight end, tried on several sets of shoulder pads, just to find the perfect match for his burly build.
"It's a very good fit. You've got to feel comfortable in what you're wearing," Wiltz said. "I really don't have a lot of injuries, and it's because of these pads."
Since he will play tight end this fall, Wiltz will wear jersey No. 86, instead of the No. 72 he wore as a sophomore starter on the offensive line last season.
"I feel ready for a very good year for our team. Now I just have to get familiar with that number," he said.
Issuing numbered jerseys is part of the outfitting process, but the veterans have priority.
"We work with them the best we can. Usually, if it's a young kid we initially give them a number," Chomskis said. "The older ones come in and get the numbers they've had all along. It just depends if a number is available."
One set of gear went untouched Tuesday - the specialized shoulder pads and rib protector were the property of quarterback Travis Clark, who was on vacation and will collect his stuff this week.
"Travis started wearing the rib protector after the game against Riverdale," Chomksis said of the 2001 contest at Blanchard Stadium where the sophomore play-caller was blind-sided and had to be taken to the hospital.
"He's a mighty talented individual. We want to protect him as much as we can," Chomskis said of the rising junior.
Clark can count on one more week of safety, at least.
GHSA rules prohibit players from wearing full gear until July 29, which marks the first day of full-contact practice. This week, public high school teams will focus on conditioning, which isn't to say workouts will be fun in the sun.
"It will be hard on them physically, because a lot of them have been sitting in the air conditioning all summer," Chomskis said. "We'll work on tackling drills and things like that. We'll just be teaching the first week."
When the Knights hit the field this week, they will sport freshly painted helmets - Evans has given up its traditional black for Vegas Gold.
"The kids like the gold helmet," Chomskis said. "The one thing I like about it is the gold deflects heat. The black helmet sucked up the heat so bad."
Now, the players will have to suck it up.
"The two-a-day practices, weightlifting and coming out with pads and helmets gets a bit tough; it's starting to get a little hot," Jacobs said. "But if we all make it through, we'll be the better for it."
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