Maybe the usual two-a-day grind was just wearing on Red Bay’s football players. Or perhaps adjusting to their second coach in four months, and a total of eight months of uncertainty of who would lead them this season, manifested itself on the practice field.
Whichever the case, the Tigers, who have grown to become one of the teams to beat in Class 2A, Region 8, learned a lesson in adversity that August day from new head coach John Ritter.
“We had a bad day,” senior Matt Belue remembered. “We were getting lazy. Heads were down. He kind of got on us. Then, he told us later about what he’d been through.
“I couldn’t really believe it. He looks young and perfectly healthy, but it really took to us. It really helped put things in perspective.”
Ritter, now 28, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer originating in white blood cells of immune system, while still an assistant coach at Muscle Shoals in January 2011.
He continued to work every other week with the Trojans, who have become one of the top programs in the state, while undergoing chemotherapy alternating Thursdays.
By the end of May 2011, he was cleared to return to coaching football full-time. After last season, he took a job as defensive coordinator with Mortimer Jordan before a series of hiring mishaps at Red Bay opened the door for his first head coaching job.
Longtime Tigers coach Dale Jeffreys left for his alma mater, Colbert County, in December. Red Bay reached a verbal agreement with Meridian (Miss.) running backs coach Craig Hall to become head coach in late February, but he backed out.
Jamie Easley, defensive coordinator from South Panola (Miss.), was then hired in March, and coached the Tigers through spring practice before leaving in July.
Finally, Ritter was hired a week before preseason camp.
He doesn’t like to broadcast what he went through Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but when it came to his football team, he considered it something worth mentioning.
“It was kind of a punch to the gut,” said Ritter, who still has to have checkups every six months for the next five years and once a year thereafter. “I never saw it coming. It’s not something that you plan for. You do what you have to do to beat it. I talked to the kids about it because it I always talk to them about facing adversity. I wanted to show them I practice what I preach.
“In football, sometimes things don’t go your way and you have to bow up.”
The Tigers seem to have taken to that message.
While still adjusting to new offensive terminology and a different 3-4 defensive alignment than what was installed during the spring, Red Bay was blown out in its first two games, 27-3 against 4A Central and 34-0 to 2A No. 1 Tanner.
Since then, the Tigers (3-3, 3-1) are 3-0 in Region 8 play, outscoring opponents 103-32, including a 21-14 win last week at Sheffield, which was considered a region title contender coming into the season.
“We’ve come a long way,” said senior Steven Wood, an outside linebacker/tailback who nicely complements Belue at middle linebacker/fullback. “We just kept our head up. It was a pretty big disappointment when (coach Easley) left, but we overcame it.
“Coach Ritter had a great message about what had happened to him, how he didn’t let it change him except for it made him a better person. We really related to that. We’re all putting the pieces of the puzzle together and have been doing better so far."
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @bappster on Twitter.