Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football

Jamey DuBose gives a pre-game speech prior to the Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football game at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery on Aug. 23, 2019.

It’s almost three hours before the Central Red Devils’ season opener against the Hoover Buccaneers, and no one on Central’s lead team bus is exactly sure what’s going on.

The Red Devils are in transit to Alabama State’s football practice facility in Montgomery prior to their game against the Bucs in the Cramton Bowl; the only problem is no one seems to know where to stop and let the 130-some odd players off. The university’s police even intervene at one point, only to mistakenly think Central is Park Crossing and lead them to the wrong stadium.

As assistant coaches laugh and the bus driver nervously makes another turn, the players that fill the back rows of the Capital Trailways charter bus remain silent. Their concern remains solely focused on the night’s mission:  facing one of the state’s premier programs and proving they are still the team to beat in Alabama.

This is a look at Central’s season opener from the time the players filled the four buses to the time they poured out for the last time early Saturday morning. The day that began with promise turned into one that simply would not end, culminating in a loss that will stay on the minds of the Red Devils for the rest of the year.

12:15 p.m. CT (6 hours, 45 minutes until kickoff)

Chris Blackshear sits in a crowded coach’s office, carefully folding gloves and preparing the Red Devils for the rest of the day.

Blackshear, Central’s director of football operations, knows a thing or two about game days because he’s seen a thing or two over the years. Blackshear has been a mainstay at Central from having worked on the radio broadcast, but since Jamey DuBose joined the program he’s effectively been DuBose’s right-hand man.

Blackshear and the coaching staff have been at it since 8 a.m. with meetings and a walkthrough with the team. Now is the point when the plans for the day start falling into place.

Blackshear calls Central’s police escort as they wait for the players to be released from class, and he double checks the plan for the route. He’s determined to get Central onto Interstate 85 without a hitch – once that happens, it should be smooth sailing all the way to Montgomery.

1:00 p.m. CT (6 hours until kickoff)

Despite a hiccup about what time the players were supposed to be let out, the travel party of 201 loads onto the buses and settles into their seats.

Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football

Central-Phenix City tight end Derrien Mathes boards the bus prior to the Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football game at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery on Aug. 23, 2019.

Among the group on the lead bus is wide receiver E.J. Williams, the highly-touted college recruit. Williams walks onto the bus silently while wearing his Beats headphones and keeps to himself near the back of the bus.

Williams remains quiet even as receivers coach Justin Albert handles roll call, prompting a teammate to tap him on the shoulder so he would speak up and be counted.

The charter buses are joined in transit by a truck towing a brand-new trailer featuring photos from the Red Devils’ championship season. In it is equipment the coaching staff will utilize on the sidelines such as a flat screen TV to look over plays during the game.

The Phenix City police assistance works perfectly, as the buses ease past red lights and curious onlookers down Highway 280. By 1:48 p.m., the travel party has hit 85.

2:45 p.m. (4 hours, 15 minutes until kickoff)

The buses peel off the interstate and come to a rest in the parking lot of Farmers Market Cafe, a country-style restaurant on North McDonough St. in Montgomery. The players are called by class to line up for their lunches, which are quickly handed out to make the stop as short as possible.

The restaurant is nearly silent once everyone has their food. This is part of a business trip for the Central players, and their only concern is eating the meat, green beans and rice quickly before going back on the bus.

Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football

Central-Phenix City has a pregame meal prior to the Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football game at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery on Aug. 23, 2019.

After 10 minutes, Central assistant coach Trip Duke offers an inspirational speech to the players about making the ultimate sacrifice. His talk ends with the visual of palm trees – alone one palm tree can withstand a lot, but the palm trees firmly planted alongside each other are nearly indestructible.

Duke gives way to DuBose, now entering his sixth season with the Red Devils. DuBose already had a fine collection of championship rings before he ever stepped foot in Phenix City, and last year’s title run only further cemented his status as one of Alabama’s best.

DuBose works his way up and down the rows of the restaurant, channeling teacher and fiery preacher as he shares his message to the team. In addition to stressing how football is the true team sport, he reminds his guys about the doubt that many have about their chances tonight.

“Right now there’s a big question mark,” DuBose says. “Gentlemen, you’re picked as the underdog. It’s the first time I know of a state champion returning to play the first game of the year in this state and being picked to lose by everybody in the state.

“Don’t be selfish tonight. I’m just asking you to do these three words – do your job.”

4:00 p.m. (3 hours until kickoff)

After the unplanned bus tour of Alabama State, the players and coaches are finally off and into the ASU football facility. The players pile into the facility to get ready for the night and for the brief warm-up they’ll have on the Hornets’ practice field.

As the players walk into the locker room to change into their uniforms and attend meetings with coaches, they pass three words plastered on the lobby wall: DO YOUR JOB.

4:55 p.m. (2 hours, five minutes until kickoff)

The Red Devils come out of the locker room after talking to coaches and watching highlight videos to get amped up. They reluctantly run out onto the field between rain drops, stretching and jogging for about 10 minutes before DuBose calls them together and sends them back to the buses.

“Coach DuBose must not want to get wet,” an assistant cracks.

The evening proves DuBose will be whether he wants to or not.

5:25 p.m. (1 hour, 35 minutes until kickoff)

Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football

The Central-Phenix City custom trailer sits at the Central-Phenix City vs. Hoover high school football game at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery on Aug. 23, 2019.

The team arrives on the back side of the Cramton Bowl, and the players follow one after the other into the locker room.

As the coaches set up tents and chairs on the sidelines, rain continues to fall from the Montgomery sky. One after the other, the assistants mutter nearly the exact same phrase.

“It ALWAYS rains when we play Hoover.”

6:10 p.m. (50 minutes until kickoff)

After ducking the rain for almost an hour, the Red Devils take the field to warm up. The stadium remains fairly empty as the players get going, and for good reason. The clouds have yet to part, and to call the 7 p.m. kickoff time likely would be wishful thinking.

Sure enough, lightning close by sends the players back inside roughly 20 minutes after taking the field.

The night slowly descends into the worst kind of wait-and-see game, as the team stays in the locker room while officials monitor the radar and coaches weigh their options. Playing the game at all appears bleak for a while, but at 9:07 p.m. the game kicks off.

Central surges ahead with Tucker Melton’s two passing touchdowns, but the Buccaneers answer back with two of their own in the third quarter. The Red Devils have their shot at regaining the lead late, but a fumble near the goal line proves costly.

Hoover puts together an 11-play, 82-yard drive to reach the Central 14-yard line in the final seconds. Despite two timeouts to ice the kicker, the Buccaneers’ Constantine Hontzas drills his kick to hand the Red Devils a 17-14 loss.

12:05 a.m.

The Red Devils make their journey back to the buses as fast as possible, changing out of their clothes in the locker room, grabbing some food from the coaches and heading out. If the bus ride over was quiet, this is one is dead silent.

A receiver asks for the bus’ Wi-Fi password and is immediately hushed by an assistant. After all, this loss needs to linger.

1:45 a.m.

Albert begins waking up the players and urging those who are expecting to ride with someone to call them now. Soon enough, the buses pull behind Central High School as the players and coaches practically sleep walk off the bus.

The loss is fresh, but everyone on board understands they can’t dwell on it for too long. The Red Devils have to head to Atlanta next Saturday to take on Cedar Grove, a talent-filled team coming off a state championship in Georgia’s Class 3A.

“We’ve got to come back stronger,” Albert tells the players before leaving the bus. “Let’s get back to work.”

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