On Jeff Arnette’s first day as South Forsyth football coach four years ago, he met a group of rising ninth graders – Brett Larkin, Sam Walker, Kyle Watford, Isaiah Williams and Davis Winkie.
They admit now that they weren’t an imposing crew.
“If you looked at all of us coming in as freshman, you wouldn’t think we had a chance,” Larkin said.
Now, they have a chance to play college football.
All signed national letters of intent Wednesday on National Signing Day – Larkin with Tusculum; Walker and Williams with Army; Watford with Air Force; and Winkie with Vanderbilt.
That made for five signees, the largest signing class in South history, according to Arnette and athletic director Keith Gravitt, which included four to Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) programs.
“We never imagined we’d have five of these guys signing,” Arnette said. “To have that happen is just a testament to the work of these kids, the character of these kids and the kind of families these kids have.”
It was a group that entered the program at a critical time. Arnette had just been hired to replace Wendell Early in 2010 and led the varsity team to the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
Meanwhile, South’s new freshmen didn’t fare as well. Larkin, Walker, Watford, Williams and Winkie each had moments on a freshman team that went just 1-6.
Gradually over the next four years the group came together on varsity and helped South make a steady climb back to competitiveness – from 2-8 in 2011 to 4-6 to 7-3 this past season.
In the process, they became some of the county’s top players.
“Most of us didn’t think we’d be playing college football,” Watford said. “We had no idea this would happen. It was just a product of a lot of hard work and dedication. It feels really good to be out here with some of my best friends and doing this together.”
They sat together behind a table at the back of the South media center wearing baseball caps of their respective college teams. Larkin wore a Tusculum-orange sweater vest. Watford wore a blue checkered dress shirt and blue tie with white Air Force logos. Walker and Williams restricted their wardrobe colors in true West Point fashion wearing white and charcoal dress shirts with solid black ties.
With balloons and food and the hum of people scattered around, the Signing Day scene was set. One by one, they stood in front of the table and introduced themselves They thanked coaches, parents and friends. They posed for pictures.
“This is the most special moment you can think of,” Winkie said.
It brought closure to a recruiting process that was arduous for each. They had been flirted with by college coaches, teased to the point of frustration. Except for Watford, who committed to Air Force during the high school season, their college football futures came together in the final weeks – in some cases, the final days – before Signing Day.
Walker and Williams committed to Army on Jan. 26 during an official visit to West Point. Winkie committed to Vanderbilt this past Sunday after his official visit to Nashville. Larkin waited until a late visit to Tusculum near Greenville, Tenn., until he was certain it was the place for him.
“The whole recruiting process, that was stressful,” Larkin said.
But on Wednesday, surrounded by each other, it was worth it.
“We never would’ve thought we’d be signing today,” Walker said. “It’s just amazing that we all get to sign together.”
“These are the kids who I’ve been working and bleeding with,” Williams said. “It’s incredible. I’m blessed.”