The proximity of just how close football season is got another nudge Tuesday.
Wearing suits and ties instead of pads and helmets, players from Marietta and Rome joined their head coaches at the Corky Kell Kickoff Luncheon at the Forum River Center in Rome as a precursor to their matchup.
“It makes me feel a little bit nervous because everything is a lot more formal than it really is normally,” Rome center Aidan Gaines said standing outside of the ballroom before the start of the event.
The annual Metro by T-Mobile Corky Kell Classic will kick off Thursday in Rome at Barron Stadium for the second year in a row with Calhoun and Ridgeland starting at 5:30 p.m. followed by Rome and Marietta in each team's season opener.
“I think we need to play some hard-nosed football and get after,” Rome defensive lineman Rayquan Jones said. “We’ve had some good practices and we just need to do what we’ve been coached up to do.”
Tuesday’s luncheon allowed representatives from all four teams who will play in Rome to talk with each other and be introduced to the events’ sponsors and local government officials. When it came time to discuss the Rome-Marietta game, the conversation turned to each team’s head coach.
Matt Stewart, who will provide play-by-play for the broadcasts of both games Thursday on Peachtree TV, mentioned how both Rome’s John Reid and Marietta’s Richard Morgan both led successful programs in other states before they first coached in Georgia.
Morgan turned Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, into a perennial power before coming to Marietta, while Reid had Alcoa High School near Knoxville, Tennessee, turned around before going to East Paulding in 2006.
Both coaches won a pair of state titles with each of their former teams before making the move to the Peach State.
“These are two coaches who know how good high school football is in the state of Georgia,” Stewart said.
After losing 51-41 to Rome last year, Morgan leads a Blue Devils team back to Barron Stadium a year older and a lot wiser when it comes to playing in big games. With many starters having been in their roles since they were freshman, the Blue Devils have a senior class rivaled by few other teams in the state.
Senior Arik Gilbert is ranked as the top tight end in the nation, while classmate Harrison Bailey is the No. 4 ranked pro style quarterback in the nation. Both Bailey and Marietta lineman B.J. Ojulari are committed to Tennessee. Gilbert is still undecided.
“Anytime you play in games like this that are high-profile, focus is not a problem. So they’re focused. And our schedule is loaded with big games and big atmospheres,” Morgan said. “This is how the whole year goes for us anyway, so this is just a great way to start it off, and jump into the season head first, dive right in and go. Because our season doesn’t really let up.”
Rome’s victory over 7A Marietta last year served as the start of a special season with running back Jamious Griffin rushing for more than 2,800 yards and 38 touchdowns and the team extending its winning streak to 40 games.
But when the season ended at Warner Robins in the Class 5A semifinals, Reid said he was reflective about how far they had come in his four years with the Wolves.
“In 2015, we were starting freshmen in the playoffs. And that team kind of got on our routine, and these kids I think responded to that,” Reid said. “We got a buy-in into the system. and it’s just hard to believe how much work it took, but when you look back and see that we won 40 games in a row, it’s incredible. It did end in the semifinals, but it’s kind of odd that five years into a program that’s kind of a letdown.”
The Corky Kell Classic will continue Friday at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville with games between Tucker and Archer, and Milton and Buford. Saturday will see five games held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, including Kell against Mays at 9 a.m. and McEachern against Brookwood at 5:45 p.m.
A second luncheon featuring coaches and players from the teams in Friday’s and Saturday’s games will be held Wednesday at the Atlanta Marriott Northwest Galleria.