Game of the Week: Lumpkin County at White County
At 2:30 Thursday afternoon, Sterling Bailey paced the floor of the East Hall gym. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior looked, at the same the time, happy, embarrassed, anxious and confident.
Happy, because he was about to receive his official invitation to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an honor no Hall County football player had earned before.
Embarrassed, because the gym was filled with his classmates, teachers, coaches and family members gathered for a pep rally in his sole honor.
Anxious, because he was going to have to give an acceptance speech.
And confident, because he knows he has the unflinching support of his teammates, family, church and community.
In sports, there are plenty of opportunities to praise winning teams and outstanding athletes for their success on the field. And too often, it’s the bad news of athletes and coaches misbehaving that steal the headlines.
But this was one of the true feel-good moments; the celebration of a gifted and humble young man who has put in the work necessary to achieve his goals.
“We should be very proud of Sterling and what he has accomplished,” East Hall coach Bryan Gray said during Thursday’s ceremony, “but above all, for his strong faith and his strong character.
“He will represent East Hall well.”
That’s what stands out about Bailey, more than his prototypical defensive end’s build or his statistics or his strength.
In the last year and a half he’s been bombarded with the kind of attention that would make most of us insufferable with ego. Yet Sterling, the son of Kevin and Laura Bailey, is still the soft-spoken kid he’s always been, eschewing the spotlight with a smile broader than his shoulders.
“Sterling’s an exceptional young man,” Gray said. “He’s very grounded, very strong in his faith, about as humble of a kid as I’ve seen, and he’s not lost that since sixth grade when I first met him. Regardless of all the attention he’s received, he’s always grounded. It’s always his family, his faith and his teammates first.”
When he got his chance to speak Thursday, Bailey proved his coach right.
“I want to say thank you to my parents,” he said. “I know God put them in my life, two loving parents, plus my grandparents, my uncles, my pastors and my teachers. I know without them I wouldn’t have made it, and I just want to thank them for it.”
Then he gave credit to his team, drawing a raucous response so loud Bailey couldn’t be heard over the public address system.
“I just wanted to take the time to thank my teammates,” he explained later, “because I know if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for them pushing me every single practice, if it wasn’t for some of them linemen putting me on my back I wouldn’t be in the spot I am now.”
After the ceremony ended, Bailey was mobbed by his teammates. And posing for photos with the boisterous group, for the first time all day, he looked completely at ease.
That attitude is why Thursday’s pep rally for one didn’t feel like another instance of too much praise being heaped on a high school athlete; it felt more like a community-wide celebration.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor at The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbholloway.