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Football: West Forsyth bonds through military-inspired leadership training
West Forsyth senior football players do jumping jacks Thursday, part of The Program, a leadership and team-building program used throughout the college and pro ranks. - photo by Brian Paglia

The morning sunlight broke over West Forsyth’s football field and the thick summer humidity settled in the air. The Wolverines’ 18 seniors had been there since before dawn, though, and four hours into their day, full-throated yells of “Yes, sir!” were audible from the parking lot.

The seniors were drained, physically and mentally, with their clothes and skin coated in a light brown coat of mud. Shawn Cahill, their first-year head coach, watched from the end zone in a white long-sleeve shirt free of stains.

This was something that Cahill had long wanted to put a team through. The Wolverines were being drilled by Chris Howe, a former Navy SEAL sniper, and Roy Hessner, who served in the Marines, as part of The Program, a leadership and team-building program used throughout the college and pro ranks. West’s two-day gauntlet is known as “Judgment Day.”

No high school team in Georgia had done it before West, though. Cahill first learned about The Program when he read about the University of Nebraska’s football team doing it, but he couldn’t afford it at his previous gig as Lanier’s offensive coordinator.

When Cahill sat down with West’s booster club, his first request was to put the team through The Program. Three days later, he got the go-ahead.

Cahill hasn’t been discouraged or disappointed by what he’s seen at West – the Wolverines have built a competitive program that brings back a significant amount of talent in its senior class. But West’s departing senior class had a number of important leaders, and Cahill could tell that his group had work to do to replace them.

“You could tell that our junior class didn’t have to do the leading part, because that senior class was so strong,” Cahill said.

Cahill said the players were “frightened” when he told them who was coming to train them. Zach Burns, set to be the team’s starting quarterback, said that the players watched videos on The Program’s website but that it did little to prepare them.

“The hard part was the anticipation of it before,” Burns said. “But once we got into it, it was good for us.”

The team had a brutal start to the course on Thursday, though. They lined up around the goal line to go through a circuit of exercises like push-ups, planks and bicycle kicks, and because of players being out of sync, or out of position, or numerous other imperfections, what was supposed to be a 16-minute segment lasted two hours.

After an exhausting first day, the players had to assemble at the field by 4 the next morning. They were then led around the track and back into the woods behind the field, where a mud hole was wet from the rain. They then had to crawl through it.

“It wasn’t exactly fun,” said linebacker Ryan Wnek, who by Friday afternoon had changed his Twitter cover photo to a shot of the assembled senior class caked in mud.

The Wolverines were clearly learning as they went, though. They finished Friday’s session at midfield with the circuit that had tormented them the first day.

This time, however, they finished in around 15 minutes, the only major slip-up coming when the team had to do a set of jumping jacks in perfect sync. Cahill is fairly meticulous in his practices, but his standards seemed lax in comparison to those of Howe and Hessner.

Both Burns and Wnek were appreciative of that, though, and connected the detail-oriented approach to West’s 17-7 loss last season to Lambert. The Wolverines had 3rd-and-2 with the ball late in the game, but two straight false start penalties forced a punt and let Lambert run the clock out.

Burns could see the big picture on Friday, how a misplaced knee in a conditioning drill could lead to a bad habit in practice, which in turn could lead to a false start in a game.

“It’s good that we can integrate that into our practice systems now,” Burns said. “Because the younger guys weren’t here, and I think they’re going to be pretty surprised with what we come back with and how detail-oriented we are now when we come back.”

Cahill, meanwhile, was taking his own lessons from the experience. He spoke with Howe about his tours in Iraq and the leadership techniques he used there, taking photos of the group and fielding inquiries from people wondering what the team was getting into.

“I feel like I got just as much out of this as the kids did, going through the whole program, listening and watching what these guys did,” Cahill said.

When the Wolverines were finally done, they walked off the field on a wave of elation and relief. Burns, wearing the evidence of his most recent trip through the mud hole, turned to Cahill and made an offer that was quickly declined.

“Are you sure you don’t want a hug?”