If you spend enough time watching football, you might see it. If you spend enough time playing football, you already know it. But spend enough time in Rogersville, Tennessee, and you are guaranteed to feel it: Football is more than just a game.
Rogersville is a small town burrowed in the foothills of northeast Tennessee, just over an hour’s drive outside Knoxville. Settled in the 1780’s by Joseph Rogers, it is among the oldest settlements in the state and boasts more than a couple historical quirks—Tennessee’s oldest active church and the founding site of its first newspaper, to name two. It’s a proud town. Some speculate that a sense of precedence evokes that pride. During football season, others point to Rogersville Middle School.
“Just about everyone that grew up in this town has a connection to this campus,” said Greg Simpson, Principal of RMS. “You find that when you come from a small town, buildings like this are a staple in the community.”
At Rogersville Middle, football is more than just a game. Jeremy Bailey, the school’s head football coach, knows this firsthand; he was raised 16 miles outside of the town and attended RMS growing up.
“Once I started playing football, my whole outlook on going to school changed. It was something I wanted to do,” Coach Bailey said. “Our students, most of them do come from tough backgrounds. And I know what they experience. So, having a football program that can provide them with everything they need is just a miracle opportunity.”
Peyton Manning speaks to a crowd of Rogersville Middle School football players after their first practice outfitted in Riddell gear
Last August, Riddell—along with Tennessee folk hero Peyton Manning—visited Rogersville to recognize RMS as one of the inaugural recipients of an ‘18 in 18’ Smarter Football equipment grant, a distinction awarded to football programs that demonstrate commitment to smarter practice and play. The Warriors were granted a range of equipment and technology to help them continue to play smarter football, from helmets, to shoulder pads, to Riddell’s new InSite Training Tool – a web-based data center designed to help coaches identify opportunities to proactively influence player behavior and reduce exposure to impacts through improved training techniques and practice plans.
For Riddell, Smarter Football means leading innovation in product design and development to create more advanced protective technologies while promoting smarter practice and play. For the students of Rogersville Middle, the meaning extends even outside the lines of the field. Coach Bailey, revered within the school and community, doubles as a math teacher and believes that the tenets of responsible football permeate other areas of his students’ lives.
The culture of Rogersville Middle reflects this philosophy. It is a community filled with people who care unconditionally for each other, regardless of age, status, or background. The school’s acronym, RMS P.R.I.D.E. – Positive, Respectful, Involved, Determined, Equal – sums it up best, and Bailey is intentional in growing his student athletes into leaders and uplifting figures within the community. “For me, it’s all about having a cooperative learning environment – that translates well on the football field, in the classroom, and in the real world.,” he said. “When that’s the focus, you get kids who have pride in their school. They kept it neat, they take ownership, and they do the right things even when they’re not told to.”
“Just by putting on that uniform – whether they want to or not – those boys become role models throughout the school,” Principal Simpson said. “We’re fortunate to have students, that just so happen to wear football jerseys, that consistently show acts of kindness and mentorship to underclassmen. That has had a strong impact on the community.”
On the field, Coach Bailey emphasizes being proactive in player protection above all else. He has modeled his coaching strategies after successful programs from the Pop Warner level to the Seattle Seahawks, teaching Heads Up, Eyes Up tackling and scaling back full-contact drills in practice to focus on conditioning and fundamentals. Bailey also said that his staff has utilized frequent post-film study meetings to dig into ITT data and formulate smarter practice plans that emphasize breaks – or “thinking time” in Bailey’s words – to re-energize their athletes and sharpen their focus on technique.
“I’m a math guy, so for me it’s about numbers. It’s been great to have all that technology to pinpoint and fine tune where our problems are so we can apply the right solutions,” Bailey said. “I have a linebacker, for example, that’s notorious for leading with his crown. So we talked with his mother, showed her all the numbers and the impacts that he was having at the top of the helmet and told him, ‘You've got to get your head up or we're going to have to pull you out of game’. That really got him focusing on the right things, and we started seeing those numbers drop throughout the season. We’ve been able to correct a lot of improper technique across the team this way.”
Two Rogersville Middle School football players line up for a drill
Rogersville Middle’s 2018 football season was an overachieving year by Bailey’s estimation, and a sentimental one, too. Riddell visited Rogersville during the team’s bye week before their third game, a highly-anticipated matchup against rival Church Hill. At the time, RMS was 1-1 on the season and coming off a blowout loss to Unicoi.
“Everybody had given us no shot against Church Hill,” Bailey said. “But in that off-week, receiving all the equipment from Riddell and getting to meet Peyton, from that point on, our students changed. Their belief in themselves changed.”
Rogersville took the perennial powerhouse to overtime in that game, eventually losing 38-36. But, as Coach Bailey said, something changed in his football team that week. The Warriors won all but one of their next five games to finish the regular season with a 5-3 record and went all the way to the semifinals of their region’s Sectionals before losing to the Chucky-Doak Black Knights. “Once they got that equipment, they felt unbeatable. There were no more excuses,” Bailey said.
The ripples of RMS receiving the grant reverberated not just on the field, but throughout the greater community, as well. It was nothing short of an event, and major events in Rogersville are felt in the hearts of everyone.
“It still hasn’t sunk in how big it was to have Peyton Manning at Rogersville Middle School,” Bailey said. “It energized everyone to the point that we had parents jumping on board to fix the field house, then the Pop Warner league jumping in to fix our chain-link fence. We were even able to hand down our spare equipment to some neighboring programs. It didn’t just benefit our school, it benefitted everyone in the community.
“But the value of this grant goes even further than new equipment or the publicity. More than anything, this is for our community and for our kids. Something like this shows them – even though we're here in small, rural, east Tennessee, in a pretty poverty-stricken place – we still have opportunities if we just work hard,” Bailey continued. “That hard-work mentality will stick with all of us forever.”
That spirit of toughness and togetherness, galvanized by the mettle of the Rogersville Middle School Warriors, is not likely to fade soon. Bailey said that he is consistently fielding calls and visits from neighboring schools curious to learn more about their new equipment and ITT, and that, for students and parents, interest in football is on the upswing. The optimism throughout Rogersville is palpable, and at the heart of it is a football program dedicated to playing smarter.
“That’s what I'm the most proud of,” Bailey said. “That this school and this football program can have an impact on Rogersville that goes beyond points scored or games won, and that this community can inspire others to come here and be proud to be a Warrior.”