E.A. Sports Today

A new fire

White Plains banking on togetherness, attitude and dedication in the weight room translating into success on the field

Quarterback Ryan Bannister directs the White Plains offense during the Wildcats’ spring game against Pleasant Valley. (Photos by B.J. Franklin)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

There’s a strange and wondrous transformation taking place within the White Plains football program.

For a team that hasn’t had much success, you might expect an initial burst of enthusiasm that comes with the start of a new season, but then when fortunes start to turn, heads drop and the end can’t get here fast enough.

You don’t get that sense with this bunch of Wildcats. All teams ascribe to the idea of being a family and a brotherhood to the point of it becoming a cliché, but these players genuinely like each other. You can tell by all the things they do together.

It used to be, see you in school, see you in practice, see you at workouts. Now, they’re doing stuff with each other in groups. They go swimming after workouts, go to the nearby Waffle House for breakfast, and find their way to each other’s homes for dinner or just watching TV. There’s even talk about getting together somewhere to watch the upcoming Mayweather-McGregor fight.


And there’s one other thing that has grown into a tradition – linebacker Walker Surrett’s bonfires.

What started out as just something to do to kill time with friends on a rural patch of land near the school has morphed into a rallying point for the Wildcats and their fans. At first there were maybe four or five guys just hanging out, but it’s grown to 15 or 20 and word is spreading.

“We just always like getting together and being a team,” Surrett said. “You can come be a team at practice and stuff, but you feel a lot better playing with someone beside you when you have more of a personal friendship with them than just sports. You want to get to know people and have better friendship and then that carries over into sports and it makes it so much better.”

Wildcats coach Chris White hasn’t been to one of the bonfires, but he’s all for anything that brings his players closer together.

“I think it’s a great thing; they’re getting together and learning each other,” White said. “It’s something in the past our guys didn’t know each other, they had no idea what their teammate was like or what they were doing. I’m glad to see it. I’m glad to see guys get together and do something in football, because that’s something that never been done here.”

Whether the camaraderie translates to success on the field remains to be seen, but the Wildcats are giving themselves every chance by truly getting along.

And theirs is a program in need of some positive vibes. They’ve won only two games the last two seasons and went winless last year. They haven’t had a wining season since 2003 or a playoff spot since 1994.

The expectations of turning it around fall to a group of 11 seniors who have been waiting their turn to become team leaders and want to be the drivers of change. If the way the players attacked the weight room with purpose and focus this offseason wasn’t example enough, just their body language tells White his players are confident.

“Everything’s changed, like our whole attitude,” center Caleb Knight said. “We’re a lot more motivated. I’m not sure exactly what it’s been, something clicked this summer and we’ve all just been on another level. Everyone’s getting at it, everyone’s gotten higher numbers. Something clicked and I don’t know what it is, but I love it. I guess we finally got tired of just everything and we’re finally making a change.”

“It started in the spring and it just got gradually better,” nose guard Jacob Briggs said. “You lose that first spring game, it just sets a bad attitude. We won it and it boosted the attitude in here so much more. We probably wouldn’t have had such a great energy in here if we would’ve lost that.”

Have kindling, will travel

The idea of the bonfire actually started just to have something to do. Surrett described himself as a homebody, but realized his senior year was upon him and he might not see his teammates any more after they head off to separate lives beyond high school. He had the wood and a place to burn it, so he went for it.

(Oh, we should say, Surrett aspires to be a fireman, so he’s had training in handling the big burn).

Recently, school officials upgraded the locker room and player’s lounge and the boys built the bonfire out of the old couches.

The first one his teammates gathered for was about three months ago. It started off as a small group, of course, but now has become a real social happening.

“I didn’t really think of it like that, honestly,” Surrett said. “I just really liked doing it as a good time, nothing serious. Now we have them a pretty good bit. And when we don’t have a fire we’re hanging out somewhere, doing something.”

The formula is simple, really. Crank up the music, throw the football around before dark, enjoy some good food. Sometimes they’ll just sit out there under the stars until the wee hours talking as the embers die.

“Football talk happens sometimes, especially for seniors,” Surrett said. “It’s the last year, you really want to make a difference, because the losing reputation sucks; you don’t want that. Since ninth grade we haven’t had many wins for our whole career playing. It kind of gives you that drive to keep going, but many times too it makes you feel like I should stop now. But that drive inside you knows if you stop there’s no success. You’ve got to strive for greatness.”

Now that the season is about to start, don’t look for the bonfires to stop. People are actually looking forward to them during the upcoming season.

“I’ve had people come up to me (and say) after that first game win bonfire at your place,” Surrett said. “I’ve had like 20 people say bonfire at your place. People are wanting to have a community bonfire, maybe it might turn into something.”

Don’t tell anybody, but it already is.


Coach: Chris White (1-19 White Plains, 2 years)

Aug. 25 – OPEN
Sept. 1 – Ohatchee
Sept. 8 – at Oneonta
Sept. 15 – Saks
Sept. 22 – at Hokes Bluff
Sept. 29 – Westbrook Christian
Oct. 6 – Anniston
Oct. 13 – Cherokee County
Oct. 20 – Jacksonville
Oct. 27 – at Ashville
Nov. 2 – Wellborn

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