This story was written for our Thursday, October 22, 2009 publication.
SNELLVILLE - As he meandered through the South Gwinnett hallways as a nameless freshman, Clay Satterwhite rarely spoke. Head down, he didn't socialize with anyone, out of fear they wouldn't understand what he was saying.
That was back in 1996. You should see Satterwhite now.
Roughly 13 years later, he is much more outgoing. He laughs and jokes with the Comets' football coaches and players. He's not an anonymous ninth-grader anymore. He's a well-known fixture, a tradition in himself, around the Snellville school.
Opposing coaches know him. Referees know him. South fans certainly do. His most visible duty is serving as the team's ball boy, though it's just a small part of what he does on game day.
That's how much life has changed for the now 27-year-old Satterwhite since he joined the football team as a manager in 1997. He's been a major part of the program since, each passing year pulling him more out of the shell created by his developmental disability.
"It changed Clay's life, it really did," his mother, Wanda Satterwhite , said of helping the football team. "His special-ed teacher still says she's never seen somebody change so much in one year. He was sort of shy, withdrawn. He wouldn't speak. Within a month, he was speaking to everybody, high-fiving everybody. His confidence really surged."
The South coaches broke down Satterwhite 's communication barrier, making him feel as big a part of the team as anyone. They also discovered a few things about their new high school manager - he was smart and he did an exceptional job.
"I found out real quickly, Clay is very intelligent, he just struggled with communication," said current Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis, a South assistant from 1998-2003. "He was a huge part of our team. He was much bigger than just a ball boy. We treated him like everybody else out there. ... Another thing you notice immediately is how prideful he is.
"If he had a job to do, he wanted to do it perfect. He's such a fiercely loyal person."
That loyalty goes to his two favorite college teams, Georgia Tech and Florida. But nobody feels that dedication more than his beloved South Gwinnett Comets.
He has worked at Kroger for the past eight years, but refuses to work Fridays. Not even during the day. Friday is game day for his Comets.
"No way I will work Friday," Satterwhite said. "No way."
Not with all the work he has to do at South. He gets to school at 12:30 p.m. on game days, joining the team as it goes through everything from team meetings to meals. He rides the bus to away games next to Comet head coach John Small, regularly asking, "Are we ready?"
At home games, Small doesn't see Satterwhite much after 4:30 p.m. He's busy working on field set-up and getting his footballs together.
He's been handling ball boy duties so long that Small knows there won't be a mistake. Satterwhite 's even an expert at keeping the footballs dry on rainy nights.
"To a quarterback, a ball boy's special, especially on rainy nights," said former Georgia and NFL quarterback David Greene, who played at South in the late 1990s. "Clay was always good at that. He kept them dry. He always knew which balls to put in the game. I liked them a little dirty, not straight out of the bag and slick. He made sure I had the right one out there."
Satterwhite just wanted to do his part well, so the Comets could win. Nobody wants a victory worse.
"If a football team had his heart, they'd never lose a game," Small said. "He's a great kid. When we win, he's the most excited. When we lose, he's the most devastated. But he's always smiling.'"
"If Clay Satterwhite could have suited up for us, he would have blown somebody up," Jarvis said. "He was that intense. He's that much of a competitor."
Satterwhite still plays baseball at Bay Creek Park, though his competitive drive is on public display at South football games. He cringes over bad plays. He celebrates and pats players on the back after good ones.
His specialty is catching field goals and extra points, though his percentage is down from past seasons. Jarvis used to chart Satterwhite 's percentage of catches, staying on him for drops like he would one of his own wide receivers.
South's prolific offense has kept him pretty busy on those catches this season. The Comets also are enjoying a resurgence this season at 6-1, giving Satterwhite hopes of seeing his dream become a reality.
"His goal is to get to the Georgia Dome, to see South Gwinnett play in the Georgia Dome," his father, Jeff Satterwhite , said.
In sometimes subtle ways, Satterwhite does his part to get his football team there. Eric Callaway was nervous before his first varsity start last year when he felt an arm around his shoulder. It was South's ball boy with a message: "Don't worry. You're going to do good."
"If anyone's tight or nervous, he's there with a big goofy smile," Callaway said. "He'll probably throw a punch at you, too. He likes to mess around with us."
That's not a scene that would have played out when Satterwhite arrived at South as a shy, reserved teenager. But he is well past those struggles now, thanks to a group of football coaches who included him in their team. They treated him like any other kid, demanding that their players treat them with respect.
Now he has a large group of friends.
"He's a phenomenal young man, an awesome individual," Small said. "One of the highlights of Friday is when he gets here. You can be having the worst week in the world and then he shows up and brings it all to the table. That puts it all in perspective."
Small's comment leads to an interesting point. Sure, the South football program has done so much for Satterwhite .
But he's done just as much for the Comets.
"The players and coaches alike have gained so much more from Clay, and not just in football," Jarvis said. "There's not a kid who graduated South Gwinnett, and I'm including David Greene, that is more respected and more loved than Clay Satterwhite ."
Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Thursdays.