Equal Force
Team fills football void for home-, private-schoolers

NORCROSS - Approaching the dusty practice field behind the old Norcross High School from the parking lot everything looks familiar.

On the far end of the field what is clearly the varsity team is running through plays and on the near side the smaller boys mimic. Beside the field is a gaggle of more than 20 cheerleaders, most repetitively shouting cheers, while a smaller group attempts a variety of tosses and formations.

Parents flank both sides of the field. One leans against the steel fence keeping both eyes fixed on their child, while another finishes up some of that day's work on a laptop waiting for practice to end. A pair of mothers use the track to work in some exercise while another sits and frets about every players' safety and hydration even as the late-day sun falls behind the trees.

As practice winds down, both the varsity and middle school teams finish with about 20 minutes of sprints. The linemen, typically, lag behind the defensive backs and the coaches shout during and between each set the sort of harsh encouragement needed for motivation.

Finally practice ends with a team huddle and a speech from the head coach and the players strip off their shoulder pads and walk to the sideline.

Then things change.

There is an old doctor's office scale standing on the surrounding track and the players weigh in before hauling all the bags into the back of a waiting truck bed. The table that held the water jugs and bottles has disappeared along with the scale, packed away by the trainers. The players walk to their cars, lugging their shoulder pads and helmets home with them.

All the appearance of a high school football practice vanishes and it's clear this is not just another high school team.

The players and cheerleaders are high-school age but they are all either home- schooled or go to small football-less private schools. But since 2004, the Georgia Force High School football team has filled that void and allowed boys and girls from Gwinnett and Hall counties the option of being involved with football no matter where they receive their education.

"The key thing we've tried to do is make this as much like high school football as we possibly can," said Force head coach Scott Willis.

And as the Force enters its fourth season, things are as high school-like as Willis can muster. They have a coaching staff of seven, all unpaid and most from Willis' church in Sugar Hill. Thanks to a sponsorship by the Georgia Force Arena Football team, the home school team has shoulder pads, jerseys, equipment bags and helmet decals. The decals come yearly from the same supplier the professional team uses, the pads and pants were handed down when the Force changed uniforms, with the Arena Football logo still stitched into the pants and Willis laughs as he points to the Nashville Cats logo on his equipment bag.

But in 2003, Willis, who played college football at Appalachian State and high school at Peachtree High in Dunwoody, didn't have any of this.

"We had two players, no field, no uniforms and I just started making phone calls and that is how it happened," he said.

Willis thought to call the Force when he saw a billboard on his way to the airport, he recruits his players through home school e-mail, by visiting schools without football programs and by word of mouth.

Oh, and the winning doesn't hurt.

In the Force's three seasons, the team has a total record of 32-4 with back-to-back Georgia Football League championships.

But Willis doesn't want too much credit for the winning. He says his program is lucky to have the large numbers it does.

"We've been very fortunate and blessed to get the kind of numbers and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we pull from Hall and Gwinnett counties," Willis said. "Gwinnett is our base."

But Willis, who makes patio doors for a living, can't count the hours he and his coaches put into the team. And every hour is voluntary. He doesn't have a salary or private office or a fieldhouse or a weight room. The Force play their home games at George Pierce Park in Buford and average about 250 fans a game. There is no two-tiered press box or artificial turf field.

But in August, thanks to Willis' efforts, this group of kids are practicing under the same burning sun and on the same dried and dusty earth as every other football player in Georgia.

And from the looks of it, if you didn't know it wasn't high school, you couldn't tell.

"We just feel it is important to give the kids the ability to play high school football," Willis said. "What would these kids be doing if they didn't have this program? They'd be hanging out.

"These kids need to be in a football program."

SideBar: Georgia Force schedule

' Aug. 31 at East Atlanta 7:30 p.m.

' Sept. 7 Emerald City Christian 7:30 p.m

' Sept. 14 Christian Heritage 7:30 p.m.

' Sept. 21 at North Georgia 7:30 p.m.

' Sept. 28 Bartow 7:30 p.m.

' Oct. 5 at Crown 7:30 p.m.

' Oct. 12 NCC 7:30 p.m.

' Oct. 19 War Hill Christian 7:30 p.m.

' Oct. 26 NCA 7:30 p.m.

* Home games played at George Pierce Park