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Thursday Night Lights



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STORY BY SHERRI GARDNER HOWELL PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOSEPH SUMMERS, JMS SPORTS

In Tennessee, 93 out of 95 counties have school-sanctioned middle school football programs.
Knox County is not one of them  Nathan Meeks, acting director of the Middle-school Age Conference, says MAC is an answer to this situation. “When the football programs in middle schools went away 25 years ago, kids started playing in youth leagues – Bearden Youth League, CBFO and so on,” says Meeks.

MAC is different from those leagues because it is striving to be a true high-school feeder program. New this season, MAC has eight teams – seven from Knox County plus Alcoa – in the league, which started play in August. It is a 501(c)(3) organization run by a volunteer board and volunteer coaches. Each team is a feeder program to the high school that the middle-schoolers will attend when they enter ninth grade.

“There has been a desire for a middle-school feeder football program for at least 10 years,” says Meeks. “Everyone in the football community would talk about it, but there were so many problems to overcome. The biggest was the cost and maintenance of the fields because all the high schools played on grass. If middle-school teams played on the same fields, the wear and tear on the fields and the cost of maintaining them was just too much.”

That changed when the Haslam family, Pilot and Pilot Flying J donated $10 million to put new artificial-turf fields at all Knox County high schools. “Not only did the turf fields solve the maintenance issue, but it opened up what we always saw as a major part of a program like this: community involvement,” says Meeks. “We now not only have a place to play, but we are able to play home games, and parents and people in the community can come to their nearby high-school fields and watch a good middle-school football game.”

Coaches are a mix of parents who may or may not have children on the teams. There are junior varsity and varsity teams, with JV being 95 percent sixth-graders. There are seven regular-season Thursday night games, then playoff games and the championship game. “Every team is guaranteed four home games, and we play nine games total,” says Meeks. “We play locally and are finished before fall break.

Meeks has volunteered as a youth football coach in Knox County for more than 15 years, coaching every age group from 8-year-olds to the freshman level. He has served as the commissioner or athletic director for multiple youth programs in the area.

In addition to the sports component, MAC incorporates community service and academics. “Rachel Evans, a longtime teacher and current assistant principal at South-Doyle Middle School, has assembled 12 teachers from across the county to volunteer as academic tutors for two tutoring sessions at two locations: Cedar Bluff Middle School and Central High School. We open these sessions at the first four-and-a-halfweek mark in the grading period and again at eight and a half weeks. Any player can come to either of those locations for a two-hour study hall and tutoring session to get academic help.”

The league also has an Academic All-American Team. Each program identifies the top GPA earners in each grade level. Those players get tickets to a state-championship game, travel on a chartered bus to the game and have a catered meal at the game.

The league will recognize players with three character/ service awards: the Eric Berry Teammate Award for selflessness to the team; the Derrick Furlow Service Award for highest number of service hours; and the Coach Crawford Award for Academic Achievement.

The service component is in partnership with the Scarecrow Foundation’s XHunger program.

“We sat down with Jimmy Buckner with the Scarecrow Foundation and talked about ways to get kids involved in volunteering and helping the community,” says Meeks. “He pulled together seven food-service organizations. Each of those now has a MAC coordinator who will let the kids on the teams know about different opportunities to get service hours and will keep up with volunteer hours.”

The seven organizations are Manna House, Ladies of Charity, Beardsley Farm, Knoxville Dream Center, Love Kitchen, Mobile Meals and Second Harvest Food Pantry.

Meeks says, “At the end of the day, winning or losing football games is not our primary mission as coaches. Our primary responsibility is building young men who will be of service to the community. Most of these kids will play high school football, a very few will play in college and even fewer will play in the NFL. It’s important to instill values that go beyond the winning or losing of football games.”

 

TEAMS AND COACHES IN MAC

Alcoa: Mike McClurg
Bearden: Nathan Meeks
Carter: Melvin Burns
Farragut: Dee Smith
Gibbs: Joe Curington
Halls: Jake Bishop
Hardin Valley: Jason Lay
Karns: Al McDuffie

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