In a county overflowing with football talent, the city of Powder Springs has found a way to stand out.
Thirty-two Division I football players call Powder Springs home. The city has an estimated population of around 15,000. Kennesaw, whose population is about double that of Powder Springs, also has 32 players in Division I.
The talent from Powder Springs can be traced back to its two high school football programs: McEachern and Hillgrove. McEachern has 20 graduates on Division I rosters, including defensive lineman Julian Rochester and wide receiver Tyler Simmons at Georgia, defensive back C.J. Miller at Ole Miss, national championship winning offensive lineman Tremayne Anchrum at Clemson and defensive back Ajani Kerr at Georgia Tech.
Hillgrove has 14 players, including defensive back Jaylen McCullough at Tennessee, tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo at Maryland and wide receiver Valerian Agbaw at Kansas. The Hawks can also boast about having four players in the NFL, including tight end Evan Engram (New York Giants), defensive end Bradley Chubb (Denver Broncos), running back Kenyon Drake (Miami Dolphins) and linebacker Brandon Chubb (Carolina Panthers).
The City of Marietta has sent 60 current players to the college ranks, but that includes eight high schools.
The coaches at McEachern and Hillgrove trace the success even further back. They say the youth and middle school football programs sustain and develop the city’s talent.
A player’s journey to college football often begins in the Cobb Football League, the K-5 feeder league where players wear the uniform of their future high school.
Then it is off to the middle school feeder league. The Cobb County school system does not recognize middle school sports, so the league is run separately by the Georgia Middle School Athletic Association.
Middle school football in the McEachern district is serious. Former coach Kyle Hockman, now the head coach at New Hampstead in Savannah, remembers his son, Bailey, practicing 15 times with two scrimmages during the spring while in middle school. Bailey is now a redshirt sophomore quarterback at N.C. State.
“He had more spring practices and summer workouts in middle school than many high school situations,” Hockman said.
Current McEachern coach Franklin Stephens inherited Hockman’s program in February after coaching at Ware County for two seasons.
“We’re probably more talented than my last school, and that’s probably indicative of being in a rural area versus the metro area,” Stephens.
Hockman praised the volunteer coaches and directors, some of whom have been a part of the program for over a decade, for contributing to McEachern’s success.
“It’s a lot of people putting in a lot of time for these young kids,” Hockman said. “I think it’s K-12, it’s not just the middle school program, it’s not just the high school programs, it’s not just the youth programs. It’s all of it. And the same thing is going on at Hillgrove.”
Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said McEachern still has the most talent in the city 13 years after Hillgrove was founded.
“(McEachern has) been a consistent beacon of good football in this county for years,” Ironside said.
The talent coming from Powder Springs has a lot to do with the players’ genes, Ironside said. But their environment also plays a part.
“It is a very competitive community, in everything they play,” Ironside said. “Anytime you’re around it, at games, at youth sports, (you see) there’s an emphasis on it.”
The pipeline of players from the youth and middle school programs may not be as bountiful as it used to be. Hillgrove discontinued its youth program when enrollment numbers dipped too low. The Indians average 35 kids per middle school team, down from about 50 during the heyday, Ironside said.
“I don’t know if every mom and dad is pushing their kid to play football,” he said. “There’s a lot more options today.”
Ironside emphasized that football is not going away anytime soon. The game will continue to adapt, he said.
In the meantime, Powder Springs remains a hotbed of football talent that attracts people both inside and outside the city.
“When people from around the area, in Powder Springs or even outside the area, see that talent is being developed, they want to be a part of it,” Hockman said.