Georgia Force home-school team off to strong start

Football is football -- and the Georgia Force home school and private school program is proving just that as it embarks on its ninth season as a program in the Glory For Christ Football League, formerly known as the Georgia Football League.

Although the current program did not officially begin playing until 2004, its beginnings are very humble and practical in nature.

"The team originally formed in 2003 as a home school team," Force athletic director Scott Willis said. "They went around the Southeast including stops in Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, as well as Georgia."

The Georgia High School Association doesn't allow for high-school aged kids who are home schooled or at a private school without a program to participate in the public school's program that is closest to their residence, as the most famous home schooled football player Tim Tebow was able to in Florida. So the kids must find their own way to play football.

Following a first season where the original squad endured long travel distances and not the best of results, the team wanted to form something more local, according to Willis.

Willis admits that when he volunteered to help with the program, he did not realize what exactly would be become of it.

"I called Sandra Coughlin and asked about where we play, the players, and the type of equipment we had," Willis said. "Everything was a no-go at that point. At that time, the Gwinnett Daily Post called me and asked about getting pictures. I told them we only had two players and no equipment."

When current Falcons owner, Arthur Blank purchased the Arena Football League's Georgia Force, that's when things really kicked into gear for the program, Willis recalls.

"I was headed to the airport on business and I thought 'OK God, you're going to have to show me a sign," Willis said. "Literally at that moment, I saw the Georgia Force arena sign. I had a friend of mine who worked with the Gwinnett Gladiators and she put me in touch with Chris Hendley, who at the time was the ticket manager for the Force, and the ball started rolling.

"Ultimately, what happened, was the Force donated jerseys and pants. I got the Gwinnett Daily Post to come out to the arena and they took a picture of the jersey donation ceremony. Then it was going out and getting sponsors, finding a place to practice, but each of those has their own stories."

The team's first two seasons in 2004 and 2005, they played eight-man football and grew from just 22 players to 74 players, which is about the number of players currently on the roster.

In addition to the players, the Force, like any high school team in Georgia, has a nine-year-old cheerleading program as well.

"We're just like any school program," Willis said. "Players, coaches, cheerleaders, a home field, everything."

The program has continued its overall growth, adding a middle school team to the program in 2010. Its current 29-player roster of sixth- to eighth-graders is its biggest.

The Force middle school squad won their first contest of the season shutting out North Atlanta 22-0.

In its history, the Force program has won two championships in back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2005 and 2006 as well as a pair of runner-up finishes in 2004 and 2010.

The GFC League has grown along with its programs. There are now two separate east and west divisions, as well as five middle school programs, which can feed their high school teams.

Although the results are important for the team, Force high school head coach Steve Riley knows there's a life beyond football.

"This is a completely different situation than college is," he said. "(Most of the time) football is all about the wins and losses and while we still want to win, we've got a bigger agenda in trying to get these kids ready for the real world and trying to make sure they see a Godly role model in a man that can be strong as a man and still be Godly at the same time."

Currently, the high school aged Force are 2-0 in the young season and expectations are high.

"We've got a lot of talent, Riley said. "We've got a lot of good kids and we've got a lot of new kids. We're going to have to gel and mesh together and work together really well to make it far in the playoffs. I have big expectations. I think we'll do well this year."

They began the season defeating Young American 21-14 Christian and shutting out North Atlanta 36-0 in two non-league games.

The team opens its league play against Skipstone Academy tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill.