Redeeming stories carry a gravitational pull. We salivate at the headline worthy backstory of the underdog that dethrones the crowning jewel.
High school football in Region 7-4A possesses a long history of behemoths dominating their respective region rivals. Between back-to-back state champion Blessed Trinity and its ardent rival, Marist, success has been difficult to come by for others.
Two years ago, West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery sought out two former Atlanta Falcons for a program rebuild. Professionals carry legitimacy, something the West Hall High School football program had sought to maintain on a consistent basis.
Two years later, with the help of Chris Owens, who played five seasons professionally, and former Falcons running back Jerious Norwood, the Spartans have found more than the potential to succeed.
“I have seen an attitude change within the guys, a lifted spirit, more team atmosphere.” Norwood said. “The previous coach — I’m not saying he did a bad job, because he did a great job, but anytime you come in with a new coach and it’s fresh and you get a better spirit and a better vibe. That’s what it takes for us to win.”
West Hall is carving out its niche, despite being around much larger programs, such as Flowery Branch, Gainesville and Buford.
Owens experienced similar circumstances when attending San Jose State University, while world-renowned Stanford was just a 20 minute drive northwest.
“They’re kind of like the little brother,” Owens said of the similarities between West Hall and his alma mater in the San Francisco Bay area. “But if you make noise where you’re at, it’ll carry that much more value with it because you’re you are a small school and they don’t expect that from you guys.”
He left high school in Los Angeles with one athletic scholarship offer to play at the next level.
Owens was never one of the big guys graduating high school and that probably hurt his college stakes. Still to this day, his 5-foot-9 frame ranks him smaller than the average NFL defensive back.
“You don’t have to be a big guy or come from a big school to make it to the NFL,” Owens said. “That’s really what I want to convey to the (West Hall kids). So far, I think I have.”
San Jose State saw potential, and in hindsight, found the oyster pearl.
“I just really wanted to play the game,” said Owens, who was a third round pick by Atlanta in 2009. “I didn’t really think about it as none of the top schools didn’t want me. I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I got to college and you talk amongst your peers and asking who recruited you.
“Even now, in retrospect, I don’t have any bad feelings about not being highly recruited. I love San Jose State that experience was so much fun.”
As a rookie, Owens met Norwood, who was in his final season with the Falcons.
“We started against each other and everything in practice and so that kind of built our relationship as teammates and led to one off the field,” Norwood said. “Just from being around different events, I would see him around and run into him and we just kind of developed a relationship from there.
“And for me, he was the perfect guy for the (West Hall) job.”
Norwood was introduced to the West Hall athletic community by his son, who began playing for the school. Montgomery approached Norwood with the opportunity to coach two years ago, and afterward, the retired football player called Owens. He saw it as an opportunity for Owens to grow.
Since then, Owens has become the head coach of West Hall Middle and special teams coordinator for the high school, while Norwood has become the strength and conditioning coach.
The return to an amateur scenery has humbled the pair. The fundamentals are the most important aspect of the beginner level, and learning how to teach football in a simpler form has been challenging.
“I know (football) so well and I can’t teach it the way I know it,” Owens said. “I have to teach it from its basics and I think that was the biggest learning curve coming from playing in the NFL and then coaching high school level. I think for the kids, it’s the same. I was trying to tell them to do something and I eventually found out that they couldn’t because it was so complex.”
Owens and Norwood made it to the highest level, but they are still learning and admiring the evolution process.
“Everyone wants to go on to play professional or college, but what (football) does is teach them how to stay focused and how to set goals and how to shoot for those goals and how to maintain a positive attitude even through the toughest of times,” Norwood said.
“We all have a journey and the one who can conquer tough times are the ones who are champions. That’s what I love — being able to pour into those guys, how to give everyday and how to do the small things. So many times they forget about the little things.
“Before we can walk, we have to crawl.”