Swain County High School’s football players and coaches on Monday were in a different sort of huddle than usual. Instead of planning the next play, they were picking out a design for their championship rings following Saturday’s 20-14 win over Ayden-Grifton.
They also were trying to absorb certain key facts, such as emerging from a hard-fought football season as the state’s 1-AA champions. And becoming the only Swain County team ever to win more than 15 games in a season.
That’s saying a lot — this is Swain County’s eighth state football championship title, though it represents the school’s first since 2004.
Player Lee Pattillo and Quarterback Colby Hyatt — Hyatt was named the game’s most valuable player for rushing 70 yards and passing for 48 more — looked a bit like deer in headlights. They admitted feeling sort of like deer in headlights, too.
“It’s awesome, unbelievable,” said Pattillo, whose father is head coach Sam Pattillo. Lee Pattillo led the team in tackles this year.
After helping to pick out the ring design, the football players returned to classes. Though it’s doubtful they were able to focus much on this day — or any of their excited classmates, for that matter — on assigned school material.
Opportunity called, Swain answered
Coach Pattillo is a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming man. He’s answered a lot of questions lately about Swain football, and patiently answers each reporter’s version no matter how repetitive they must, by now, truly seem.
What does a state championship mean to you, the team, the school, the community?
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Pattillo said. “… winning a championship is something special.”
What was different about this team; did luck play a part?
“I don’t believe in luck,” Pattillo said in reply. “I believe in opportunities.”
And, he added, in hard work, talent and commitment, both on the field and in the classroom.
“If we’d not won, we would have been disappointed, but we still would have done our very best,” Pattillo said. “And I think that’s all you can do.”
Many at this school, at least the guys working here, seem to have played high school football. Swain County High School Principal Mike Treadway, a broad-shouldered, burly man whose physical presence dominates his small administrative office, played on Swain’s 1985 state championship football team.
Though Treadway clearly relishes the team’s accomplishment, he said that the real goal here is achievement in the classroom and in other areas of life. And that goes for all of the various students who attend Swain County High School, no matter whether it’s playing in the band, hitting volleyballs over a net, or even catching touchdowns on the field in pursuit of a state championship.
“We’ve only had one fellow leave and make money off football,” Treadway said pointedly.
That would be U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a standout football player at Swain County High School and, later, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before turning pro with the Washington Redskins.
Ties that bind
If there’s been one anchor to give weight to the Swain County football program through each of the school’s eight state titles, it’s Offensive Line Coach and Assistant Principal Billy Jenkins. The players and coaches were crowded into his office selecting the ring design.
Jenkins played on a state football championship team in Robbinsville. He has coached for 32 years in Swain County, making him an integral part of every state football championship the school has won: 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011. Jenkins just participated in his final game, however, he’ll retire at the end of the school year.
“It’s just time,” he said in explanation.
The ties that bind this school and team are incredible. Jenkins started his job at Swain County in the spring of 1979 when Coach Pattillo was a quarterback for the Swain team, leading them to the school’s first state championship that year. Jenkins has now helped coach Pattillo’s son, Lee, to the school’s most current championship, and coached Principal Treadway to the one won in 1985.
Jenkins is no less thrilled with, or jaded by, this eighth championship.
“It doesn’t get old at all,” he said. “They’re all great. And, as a coach, you want these kids to win one, because it’s something that you never forget, playing on a state championship team.”