“On Friday nights when we walk out that door, I get the same feeling I did when I was 17. That hill is packed. The stands are packed, the sides are packed. It doesn’t matter if you’re 2 and 8 or 10 and 0, the community just supports the program. That’s a part of small-town USA. But here it is a different feeling.”
The athletics section of the West Blocton High School campus sits nestled into a valley behind the rest of the school like a storybook cove, with a feeling of something special living there. It feels like a cozy homestead.
“It is a home a way from home. And we want them to feel that way,” Coach Hiott said, “I want them to have a place to go, as long as there’s no nonsense going on. I don’t think athletes should get more privileges than other students, but they do represent our school and our community every Friday night. And we remind them, when you’re not here or at a ballgame and you’re out in the community, remember who you represent.”
Coach Eric Hiott hasn’t spent his entire coaching career at West Blocton, but his heart has always been there. “One thing that makes it special to me and a lot of these players is that my daddy played here, I played here, and my son played here. That’s three generations. And that’s true for a lot of these players.” There’s heritage, and a legacy.
The balance of fans, cheerleaders, band, players and coaches on the visitor side of the field – one they’d not been to – last week in York, gave me a feeling of being at a family reunion, even down to intermingling along the sidelines. One could watch players and cheerleaders joking around, parents and others talking to kids across the fence; everyone huddled for warmth with blankets and hot chocolate. The whole community felt like one big family. Actually it was smoother than most large families. There was no tension. No politics being played. Nothing to detract or distract from the experience of being there together on a Friday night.
“I have a special relationship with Mr. Cox, the Band Director, and Miss Dodd the cheerleader sponsor. I have the utmost respect for them,” Hiott went on, “They work hard. During the summer when they started band camp, when we’d get through with our workouts me and Coach Clements would take the cart up there and watch the band practice. I don’t think my kids are any more special than Mr. Cox’s kids. And I’m sure they see it the same way. It’s a special place, here. I don’t think you see that relationship across the school the same way other places.”
Several years ago, he was interviewing for a head coaching position at another school. But when he talked to his son about it, he didn’t want to be anywhere but West Blocton. He wanted to play for this team, where his dad and granddad had played. And that caused a realization to Hiott that this was where he truly belonged.
West Blocton holds such a special place in Hiott’s heart for many reasons. He was married for 28 years. He lost his daughter in 1997. He lost his wife in 2014. “This community rallied around me and picked me up. They wrapped their arms around me and got me back on my feet. This school and community really are one big family.”
Two years ago, he added another to his family when he proposed to his new bride during a pep rally. She said yes, amidst an explosion of cheering by the entire school. “That’s how close this community is. I didn’t do it for attention, I did it because I wanted Coach Chamberlain to see – that’s just this community.”
Currently 3rd in 4A Region 3, they travel to Handley on November 1st for the first round of state playoffs.
“We haven’t played a game yet with all of our starters. Only the first series against Brookwood, game 1. Then we lost two guys to injuries. We’ve been missing the speed. It’s not that we don’t have tough kids. We’re just smaller, don’t have the numbers, and so we’re having to play both ways, both sides of the ball. But they’re tough. They’re hard-nosed.”
“We’re really a small 4A,” Hiott said. They played 5A team Pleasant Grove, and lost. But Pleasant Grove’s coach said the Tigers beat them up pretty good, according to Hiott. “We play hard. We just don’t have 60 kids, we have 35.”
“I’ve been around some fine kids, and some good groups of kids, but when you’re talking about that chemistry … only a few times in 26 years have I seen it and felt it like this. This group’s got it. They never fuss. They all get along. If there’s a problem they work it out. They’re one of the best groups of kids I’ve ever had. I just wish we had the numbers to get them over the hump to show people just how special they are. And they’re giving us all they’ve got. They give 100%. It’s all heart.”
“There are so many negative influences, sometimes feels like a losing battle, but if you can reach a few of them, you win. You’re not going to save every one of them, but when one falls through the cracks, it bothers me. When a past student got in some bad trouble last year, I lost sleep over it,” he said quietly.
Last Christmas the team delivered 25 gift baskets to elderly in the community. They mentor the younger kids. They don’t mind giving back. They want to do it. It’s more than about winning the games. “We could be 10 and 0 and state champs, but when they graduate and leave here, if they’re not good husbands and good fathers, then I did something wrong. I could be a .500 coach, but if in 10 or 15 years I know that they learned something about how to be a good husband and father, then I won in the end. I’m not in it for the money. You don’t coach high school football for the money. I wanted four or five kids, but the Good Lord didn’t bless me in that way. So, I don’t have four or five … I have 60.” He paused with the emotion of the thought was on his face, “It’s not about me.”
“I was at Dallas county high school. Michael Johnson, who played at GA tech, and then with the Cincinnati Bengals for 10 years, played there. He retired this season. The day he signed his scholarship, his daddy came up to me and said, ‘Coach, Mike came home every day complaining that you were busting his rear end, and he didn’t know what he had to do to please you.’ And then he stuck his hand out and shook my hand and said, ‘I thank you for it.’ And it was right then it hit me, this ain’t about Eric Hiott. It ain’t about me anymore. That kid’s going to Georgia Tech to play football. It ain’t about me. I’ve got to get kids through programs; get them through school. That’s the way I feel, and I think that’s the way my assistants feel, too.”