With less than a week on the job, Davidson High School interim football coach Shawn Smith says he and his players are ready to move past the team’s recent controversies and focus on the upcoming season.
A former assistant coach for the Warriors and a longtime teacher, Smith was tapped to be Davidson’s interim head coach just days after Fred Riley was placed on administrative leave amidst a series of allegations that his team regularly hazed younger players.
Administrators at the school and with the Mobile County Public School System [MCPSS] have been under pressure after several videos surfaced showing Davidson football players physically attacking other students including Rodney Kim Jr. — a 14-year-old former quarterback whose arm was broken during an assault in April.
His family and two others have since filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against MCPSS and released two videos of other Davidson students being attacked, in some cases by members of the football team.
In an unfortunate bit of timing for Smith, shortly after he and a few of his players met with local media, one of the former students who pleaded guilty to assault charges in connection to Kim’s beating gave an exclusive interview to NBC 15 alleging there is a hazing culture at Davidson — one that has gone on for years.
The student, who has since been expelled from Davidson, did not identify himself in the report but said he’d been hazed as a freshman and there were similar instances Riley allegedly witnessed while he was the head coach.
While Smith knows many of the players, he’s still a new coach coming into a football program two weeks before the season with the drama surrounding the program and without at least seven players he said “could have” made an impact for the team were not expelled for their role in Kim’s April 27 assault.
He said calling it a challenge would be “an understatement.”
However, despite the coaching transition and the external distractions, Smith told reporters Monday his players — especially the group of seniors — are going to help the team move forward on and off the field.
“We’re focusing on a theme that a lot of coaches emphasize, and it’s play the next play. When one play is over, you’ve got to get up and play the next play. That’s where we’re at, we’re ready to play the next play, we’re ready to move forward,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of seniors on this team that are going to lead us. They’ve invested a lot of time, effort and energy into the program and they’re ready to compete.”
The Warriors will have their first chance to compete in Meridian, Miss on Aug. 24 when they open their season on the road against Meridian High School. He credited the staff of assistant coaches with helping to keep the team focused, though he said most players haven’t been distracted the media attention around the program.
Team members may not be the only students who want to move past the media coverage of Kim’s attack and the fallout since. As reporters made their way to the Warriors practice area, one student not on the team yelled from a distance: “I’m so sick of the news. Find another damn story.”
Senior Quarterback Tim Johnson said he hasn’t let any of the noise get to him and says he’s tried to encourage his teammates to keep the same focus.
“What I told the team was we have to take it one day at a time. I mean, there’s going to be some attention around us, but as long as we stay to ourselves and do what we have to do, everything should be just fine,” Johnson said. “My focus has been going to school and coming to football practice. I come home, and I don’t even watch TV.”
Asked if the adversity might help or hurt the team’s chances heading into the season, Johnson said: “We’re going to go out every week and compete and whatever happens, happens.”
Because it involves active litigation, the students and Smith were instructed not to speak about Kim’s assault, his family’s lawsuit or the suspension of Fred Riley, but when asked about the alleged “culture of hazing,” Smith said he never saw anything like that during his previous experience with the team.
Senior Louis Herman, a wide receiver for the Warriors, said he has also had no experience like that on the team.
“We’re a family, and you know we have a good time and play around, but at the end of the day, it’s all about football,” he said. “We just want to play football and have fun.”
Running back Kolby Blunt said he doesn’t believe his senior season with the Warriors will be that different because of the recent changes. Even with a new head coach, he said “we have a very resilient team” that will adjust and move forward.
“It’s going to be the same — as if nothing has changed. We’re always ready to play and to give it all you got,” he added. “It’s my senior year. Everybody looks forward to this, so I’m going to keep working hard.”
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