Harlem High School football coach Jimmie Lewis remembers what it was like to play football for the Bulldogs, but something was missing from the sport in those days.
Lewis, a 1970 Harlem graduate, said, "We didn't know what weights were."
Like all the other Columbia County high-school football coaches, Lewis is a former prep player who rarely pumped iron to improve his performance on the gridiron.
But Lewis proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Harlem, and most every high school program, now takes weight training very seriously, and the change was wrought by necessity.
"If you don't lift weights year-round now, your're lost," Greenbrier coach Mickey Derrick said. "The last three years our football team has realized how important weightlifting is, from playing Thomson and Statesboro."
The emphasis on lifting at the high-school level resulted from the influence of college football programs, which in turn followed the lead of professional teams.
There are two primary reasons for the newfound focus on lifting - increasing an athlete's strength and preventing injuries.
Stable muscles can withstand more abuse, and in football, surplus strength means you can take it and dish it out.
"Most of our seniors have been lifting since before seventh grade, and it's helped us a lot," Augusta Christian senior Sam Pitts said. "There's definitely a benefit. In the fourth quarter, when people start getting tired, we'll be able to finish and wear down the other team."
Raising the bar
When it comes to high-school football players, there's no rest for the weary.
"There's no such thing as an offseason," Lakeside coach Randy Hill said. "We push our kids to weight train because it makes them that much better."
At Evans, football coach Marty Jackson opened his team camp last month with a "liftathon." The challenge pitted the Knights in a match of muscles, and gauged a player's gains from summer weightlifting sessions.
"You can really tell who's come to summer workouts and who hasn't," Evans junior Bryan Kelley said. Kelley, with Cheng Ho, earned the Golden Knight award for attending every workout session during summer break.
Summer lifting wasn't mandatory, but attendance was strongly encouraged.
Augusta Christian players lifted three days a week during the summer, and AC coach Bruce Lane thinks it was time well spent. "We hope that the hard work this summer translates into success in the fall," he said.
Though all of Columbia County's prep football teams lift, each raises the bar in a different way.
Greenbrier uses a program employed by Statesboro High School. The Wolfpack works out with more weight and less repetitions, and the players "max out" (increase the total weight lifted) every week instead of every six weeks. The result: an increase in strength.
"We've been very happy with our weight program," Derrick said. "Coach (Charles) Fales heads it up, and Coach (Rodney) Holder monitors classes during school. They both do a great job for us by getting the kids motivated."
Evans employs a weightlifting system by coach Rodney Garvin, which borrows tenets of the Bigger, Faster, Stronger program, and adds conditioning and agility drills.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger is a computer-based system that tracks gains of each athlete. Harlem and Lakeside use BFS, as does Augusta Christian (with some variations by AC strength coach Keith Walton).
"We've sold our kids on the BFS system," Hill said. "A few of our seniors have increased their strength quite a bit, and a lot of our guys bench over 250, which is great for all of the skinny kids we have."
High-school teams still work out during the regular season, but not as strenuously as in the offseason. Players can't slack off, though - they take weightlifting classes at school or work out before or after practice.
"At one point we were just trying to maintain our strength," Derrick said. "Now we're at the point where we're trying to go up during the season. That's one thing (Statesboro) Coach (Buzz) Busby said - 'We don't try to maintain. We try to get better.' That made a lot of sense."
Greenbrier's Rashad Dunn and Chuck Middleton are members of an exclusive club.
The Pack players are in Greenbrier's 1,000-Pound Club. They secured entry by topping the magic mark with their weight totals in the four primary lifts: bench press, incline, power clean and squat.
Making the club is an incentive for Greenbrier athletes to work hard in the weight room. "They want to see their name on the board," Derrick said. "If a player makes the 1,000-Pound Club, their name stays on the board until that building falls down."
As a freshman, Middleton benched 115 pounds. Now, as a junior, he is up to 325. "It takes commitment, and mostly hard work," he said.
Evans, meanwhile, records leaders in the four lift categories, and a top-10 list is posted prominently on a board in weight room. Another carrot-and-stick ploy was if a Knight made 18 workouts during the summer they earned a T-shirt.
But Jackson said, "The best encouragement for weight training is your peers. If you weren't here lifting this summer, you were letting your teammates down."
Harlem held three lifting sessions per week this summer, and players making 21 of 26 workouts will have their names on their jerseys this season. The other Dogs will have to be identified by jersey numbers alone in 2003.
"Out of 63, about 45 got their names on the jersey," Lewis said. "We're trying to get these kids to understand how important weightlifting is."
Lakeside also used the jersey incentive. "We had 33 guys make 21 days of lifting, and they'll get their names on the back of their jersey," Hill said.
Augusta Christian set levels of attainment for summer workouts. If a player attended a minimum of 24 workouts and passed 10 tests, they were dubbed Super Lions. Those who made 21-23 workouts were Silver Lions; 18-20 workout sessions earned Iron Lions status.
Super Lions received a Superman decal for their helmets, plus a picture in the 2003 football program; players at the top two levels were allowed to skip conditioning on first day of practice; those reaching all three levels also received a trophy and a T-shirt.
For some players, the intangible rewards make all the toil worthwhile.
"Working out is like my second religion," Evans junior Cliff Hancock said. "When you're lifting, you struggle and get tired, but when you finish you feel so good it's like a high."
The weight-training euphoria can tempt an athlete to strive for a higher level.
"Steroids" and "creatine" are buzzwords of body-building, but for Columbia County coaches, they're both four-letter words.
"We don't promote that at all," Derrick said. "I'm sure there are high-school players that think about that, but we're against it."
In layman's terms, steroids are drugs that speed the muscle-making process for lifters. Creatine is an over-the-counter supplement used to increase muscle size and strength.
Picture the Incredible Hulk in pads and a helmet.
The extra boost may be prevalent in college or professional football, but local players are content with making muscle the old-fashioned way.
"I feel that if you don't do it on your own, it's not natural," Dunn said.
Augusta Christian tailback Cole Rabun said, "I'm sure that some teams do (steroids or creatine), but we're just not going to do that."
As for Lakeside, Hill's players feel the same way - he hopes.
"I'm 99 percent sure that we don't have anyone using steroids here," Hill said. "We have a pretty intelligent bunch. There could be a few that do creatine here and there, but we don't promote it as coaches."
But some coaches may be playing a dangerous game, according to Lewis.
Charles Middleton (left) and Rashad Dunn have qualified for the 1,000-Pound Club at Greenbrier High School.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"I know there are schools that are giving their players creatine," he said. "We're not going to give our players that mess. There's no proof that it won't be harmful to their health 20 years from now."
Jackson put the issue into perspective, saying, "Kids may get creatine, but I've never seen any proof that it works. Steroids do work, but they're illegal and there are some side effects."
The potential short-term side effect - dominating a game - can lead players to think steroids are a risk worth taking.
The ones who abstain are left wondering.
"All of our opponents (in Region 7-AAAAA) look like they're on steroids," Hancock said. "They're all huge. They've probably just been lifting weights for a long time, because I don't see how their school would let that (use of steroids) happen."
When it comes to biceps, bigger is better. But it's not easy to flex your muscles when your high school's weight facility is the equivalent of a 97-pound weakling.
In Harlem's small workout area, players are forced to compete for space. Some cram into one central room, and others spill into the hallway and lift there.
"It's very small. We have a pathetic little weight room," Lewis said. "If we're ever going to be competitive in this county, we need better weight facilities."
Lewis says the school is planning a new weight room. It would be built behind the football fieldhouse, but with an estimated cost of more than $100,000, donations will be needed.
In this case, money is power.
"Washington County has something (for working out) the size of our gym. They have a state-of-the-art type deal, and it's evident - they have some 6-7, 295 guys that can bench half the town," Lewis said.
Lewis said he thinks all of Columbia County's public high schools need better weight rooms. He says that would "get athletes enthused, and make them have some pride."
A new weight facility at Lakeside also is on Hill's wish list.
"Our weight room looks like a closet. We need some help from the county and the booster club, because we really need a new weight room. I hope someday it will happen."
Conversely, the other county coaches seem satisfied.
Greenbrier converted its football fieldhouse into a weight room four years ago, which Derrick said was "one of the best moves we've ever made around here.
"I'm sure our weight facilities would compete with any of the other ones in our region. We have plenty of room. We can usually get 75 to 80 kids in there on all their lifts and get them out in about an hour."
The Augusta Christian squad also sweats in plush surroundings. AC's weight room was refurbished last year, thanks to a $25,000 donation. The upgrade includes a recarpeting job, new paint, and eight power-station platforms, which allows 32 people at a time to work out.
"It's a first-class setup, and that's what we're trying to do with all of our programs," AC coach Bruce Lane said. "I would think we now have one of the top five weight facilities (in the Georgia Independent School Association)."
The weight room at Evans was expanded a few years ago. "It's serving our needs very nicely," Jackson said.
Columbia County's coaches know that size does matter, so they all preach the benefits of weightlifting.
It's not a hard sell.
"I think the majority of our kids have really seen the improvement that this program has brought us," Derrick said.
In many cases, football players are as competitive in the weight room as they are on the field of play.
At Augusta Christian, Drew Snelling won the Lion Challenge lifting contest, and the other Lions nipping at his heels are determined to catch up. "We have kids like Chad Cooper, who you have to run out of the weight room," Lane said.
Still, just being in the weight room isn't enough. Hoisting heavy loads is hard work, and just going through the motions has its price.
"We're just like anybody else. We'll have a few of them that aren't going to push themselves, and they're not going to get any better," Derrick said. "The ones that really work hard are going to see drastic increases in their maxes, but they have to push themselves."
And if the players don't push themselves, their opponents will do the pushing.
"Back when I was in middle school, it just didn't seem as important to me as it does now," Dunn said of weightlifting. "Now I know how important it is. In the past, there have been teams that had a big edge in strength over us. This year I think we've caught up. Everybody on the team is stronger."
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