As the chartered buses pulled into Flowery Branch High to pick up the football team and cheerleaders, the air-raid siren familiar to players and fans alike blared, echoing out over the empty football stadium and sending them off with a little bit of home.
Lining Spout Springs and Hog Mountain roads, the Flowery Branch community waited for its team, waving signs and chanting as cars passed honking their horns in support.
The parking lot of the Rite-Aid, just down the road from Flowery Branch High, was filled to capacity with cars, the windows painted with phrases that have become rallying cries during the 14-game season.
Among them, “Leave no doubt,” “We believe,” and “Bring it to the Branch.”
Amy Todd, mother of Falcons’ starting center Austin Todd, was at the center of it all, selling the last of the 1,400 T-shirts made to commemorate the road to the state championship. She enlisted the help of her brother Steve Livesay, who traveled from Lakeland, Fla., with wife Alexis to watch his nephew play for a state title.
“After the win (over LaGrange in the state semifinals), people started thinking and we came up with the design for the front,” Todd said. A design, drawn up by Richard Sanderson father of starting junior linebacker Cory Sanderson, depicting the Falcons’ 1,000 mile journey around the state, a journey ending at the Dome.
The sirens of the police escort were the first indication that the team was approaching, the roar of the crowd of over 2,000 the second. Included were Todd’s mother and father, Beverly and Sherb Livesay of Lawrenceville who haven’t missed a game of their grandson’s memorable season and Jennifer Boudreau, mother of Robbie Boudreau who on Tuesday had major neck surgery.
It was a brief send-off, but one that will resonate.
“This is so exciting,” Todd said. “I’m so proud of our community for showing up. Now it’s on the The Varsity.”
But first, one more moment of reveling, “That was pretty cool, huh,” Todd said.
What a week it was
Shrinking a state championship experience down to a day, or an hour-long car ride doesn’t do it justice.
For the Flowery Branch players, parents, fans and community, the journey to the Dome began long before Saturday’s jaunt down I-85.
From the parents making stockings for each of the 100 players on the team, to taking over the sidewalks lining the road to I-985 to see them off, the journey was more a marathon than a sprint to the finish.
It began at 8 a.m. Monday when Todd took the T-shirt design to American Solutions for Business where, with the help of Sheila Ramey, mother of volleyball standout Jennica Ramey, 600 T-shirts were printed to be sold at Flowery Branch High on Thursday.
They sold out in 15 minutes, so Todd called on Ramey again, who gathered a team together to work until the wee hours of Friday morning on 800 more shirts, the last of which were sold Saturday morning.
“They went above and beyond and further,” Todd said. “(Ramey) moved mountains to pull that whole thing together.”
As did the entire community, an act foreshadowed by an e-mail Todd received from Flowery Branch mayor Diane Hirling which stated simply, “We are behind you.”
From Vinny’s pizza, which donated a night before gameday meal for the team and their families, to Publix which provided water, bananas and Power Bars for the Falcons, the community stepped up.
Friday night, after hearing a rousing rendition of “Twas the Night Before Gameday,” written by 2006 Falcons’ captain Brett Sanderson, the players got a gift.
Accompanied by AC/DCs “Thunderstruck”, several Falcons’ parents brought out stockings filled with everything from gum provided by Wrigley’s to sunflower seeds bought with money donated by Wal-Mart.
“In these economic times, for people to do what they did, it just shows what kind of community we have,” said Linda Sanderson, mother of Cory Sanderson.
From “The Branch” to the Dome
When the buses passed the raucous crowd, everyone headed to The Varsity where Falcons’ fans enjoyed chili dogs and hamburgers, and a frosted orange or two, and talked about what might be.
It was a short drive from The Varsity to the Dome, “It’s time to get pumped,” said Todd as “Thunderstruck” came roaring out of the speakers of her Honda SUV.
“The frenzy is over and now we’re here,” Todd said, “I’m calm and ready to take care of business.”
As the Emmanuel County Institute, Wesleyan game came to a close, Falcons fans began moving to the 50-yard line.
“I wonder what’s going through their (the players) heads,” Todd said to no one.
Her husband Andy Todd, who’s been president of the Flowery Branch Touchdown Club for seven years, also spoke to space, “I can’t believe we’re here, I really can’t.”
As the game started, the chatter stopped replaced by cowbells and cheers.
With 15 seconds left in the first quarter, Amy Todd’s heart was still pounding, with seven minutes left in the second quarter and the Falcons defense having held Cairo to two straight three-and-outs, Andy Todd said, “I can smell it (a state title).”
At the start of the fourth quarter, with the score tied 14-14, the feeling was overwhelming, “I feel like I’m playing the game,” Beverly Livesay said.
When the fourth quarter ended, Cairo had won the state title, but the Falcons’ fans were still shaking their black and red pompoms, still standing with many saying out loud as though the players could hear,
“We’re so proud of you.”
“(Playing for a state title) is a dream come true,” Todd said. “You think about how many don’t get that chance.”
While the loss will sting for a while, the memories made not only over the course of a week leading up to a trip to the Dome, but over the course of a historical season will live on.
“I have never had as much fun in my life as I’ve had watching this season,” Sherb Livesay said in a solemn voice on the drive back from the Dome to “The Branch.”