Twenty years ago at Nashville Elementary School, a fifth-grade teacher, Ella Batts, took notice of one of her students.
As Batts recalls, he was polite, well-mannered and always eager to do the right thing.
That child grew into an athlete who became college educated and is now a leader of young men.
It’s no surprise to Batts that Rocky Mount High football coach Jason Battle has become a success, and it’s not a shock to her that the first-year Gryphons coach has players who show some of the same attributes.
Batts would know.
As the Principal of Winstead Avenue Elementary, Batts sees nearly two handfuls of Gryphons players walk into her school every Friday afternoon to read books and assist young students at the school.
They are polite and eager to help out a younger generation.
“The teachers love it, but the children love it even better,” Batts said. “The boys have been good role models to the children.”
It seems as if change in Rocky Mount’s football program isn’t confined to just X’s and O’s and wins and losses. The 2012 version of the Gryphons has a change in leadership, attitude, effort and community outlook.
Becoming an extension to the community began before the first snap of the season when some Gryphons went to D.S. Johnson Elementary and helped prepare classrooms for the first day of school.
The tasks were as simple as moving tables and chairs, but players were present and willing to give of their time.
“Our kids are doing a lot of great things,” said Battle, whose team is 5-0 entering tonight’s Big East Conference opener at Nash Central. “They are doing a lot more than just on the field.
“There’s a total change in the program of what we’re doing. They take pride in going over and being role models for those kids. ... The young kids get a chance to see that in order to play football, you have to do things the right way. Our kids are doing things the right way. All those things I think play a part in their success on Friday nights.”
Battle, a Rocky Mount alumnus who took over the program in the spring, gives his players credit for adapting to change. The previous three seasons were unsuccessful under Dickie Schock, as the Gryphons missed the postseason in two of them. The team finished 3-6 overall and 0-5 in Big East play last season.
Everything is different about the Gryphons this season. They are at a brand new school with excellent facilities.
They even practice differently.
There is less standing around in groups watching the starters practice.
Those not involved in a specific part of practice run laps.
Tempo is a word Battle uses multiple times during the sessions.
Most of all, the players are held accountable. Linemen have their grades from each game posted in the locker room, while the remainder of the Gryphons are given grades in private.
“We have a coach we want to play for,” Gryphons offensive lineman Austin Warner said. “He motivates us to want to do things. Whether we want to do them or not, it’s going to get done.”
The results have been favorable on the field, as the Gryphons have surpassed their win total from last season. Standout running back Mason Hines said he constantly is approached by peers he doesn’t know at school.
Unlike in seasons past, they want to know who, when and where the Gryphons are playing on Friday nights.
“When people I don’t know are talking about the game, you know it’s serious,” Hines said. “Not only are we pumped up for the conference, but everybody at school is.”
Battle wants to win, but watching his kids conduct themselves in an appropriate manner on and off the field is paramount. It’s something he didn’t see in recent seasons, and he gives credit to a solid senior class.
“Our kids lost a sense of what it means to be a Gryphon,” Battle said. “They lost their sense of pride. Regardless of leadership, our kids didn’t respond and play with their heart. They would succumb to adversity.”
This season, adversity is met with a collective effort. A poor play, quarter or half is responded to with a better effort.
It’s a group that doesn’t mind reading “Johnny Appleseed” repeatedly to kindergarten students just hours before playing under the Friday night lights because they understand what it means to be a complete football program.
“I’m enjoying the fact that they are able to be successful,” Battle said. “They are understanding the hard work they’ve put in from the summer up until now is paying off. My enjoyment comes out of their success. Everything we do is built are being a team and a teammate first. They’ve responded to that. They are a team. It’s not a bunch of individuals.”
Jessie H. Nunery can be reached at 407-9959 or email@example.com