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CLINE: Father-son duo are field generals

The field at Mill Creek High School is shown above. (Special Photo)

The field at Mill Creek High School is shown above. (Special Photo)

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Thor and Don Neff are field generals. (Special Photo)

If you want to know how dedicated Don Neff is to the Mill Creek football program, consider that he’s spending his 50th birthday at the school’s football field tonight. The longtime Touchdown Club contributor doesn’t want it any other way.

This week is a big one for Neff. In addition to the milestone birthday, he and his team are preparing for the Hawks’ first home football game of the season. For the past decade, Neff has been in charge of getting the field painted for home games, relying on a group of helpers that include his eldest son, Thor.

The process of preparing the field has become part of his life — so much so that he takes vacation days in anticipation of big games, like Senior Night — and no game gets him more excited than the first time each year that Mill Creek kicks off at home.

“That’s the best,” he said of the home opener. “The grass is perfect. Everyone is so excited about football. (And this year) Brookwood is coming to play us. It’s the best.”

In anticipation of the big game, Neff has taken this entire week off from his job as building products salesman. He’ll be at the field tonight doing the bulk of the preparation and will return Thursday night to implement the finishing touches. It’s a schedule he’s followed since the program’s inception, and one he doesn’t deviate from, weather allowing.

“I’m very particular about it. Absolutely,” he said of the process. “But it’s an absolute blast doing it, and getting to do it with my son. Just having him out there is awesome.”

Neff’s involvement with preparing the field started innocently enough. An eager member of the Touchdown Club in support of his youngest son Jed, Neff was willing to do anything. That led him to painting the field, a process he mostly learned by doing.

“A lot of it was learning on the job,” he said. “And a lot was looking at stuff online and figuring out and a lot of it was (head coach) Shannon Jarvis’ guidance.”

Though Jed has long since graduated, Neff has remained part of the program. The main reason, he said, is his affinity for the coaching staff in general and Jarvis in particular. They have become his friends and the program has become his mission.

It’s a reciprocal feeling, Jarvis said. It takes a village to run a successful football program, and the large group that works in support of Mill Creek’s program has Jarvis’ eternal gratitude.

“I think it’s easy for the fans to take for granted the work hours required to get a field game ready,” Jarvis said. “It takes more than 15 volunteers a week to make it happen and they take a huge burden off the coaching staff’s shoulders by doing jobs like this. The pride they take in the field is second to none, and that’s what makes Mill Creek such a special community.”

For Neff, the job of painting the field is also a respite. Over the years he’s become more of a manager, letting others participate in much of the painting. Jeff Marbut is a main contributor now, and several others pitch in as well. But Neff still likes to do the particulars, such as the stenciling of the yard line numbers and the painting of the end zones with Thor, and relishes the times when he can get lost in the enjoyment of prepping the field.

“I have a very stressful job, but working on the field is so relaxing,” he said. “There’s nothing like going up on a Sunday and painting the field. It’s very relaxing.”

He might not relax this week until late Friday afternoon, when he and his family start up their traditional tailgate party. There will be plenty of food and everyone who walks by is invited to join in. There will be great anticipation with Brookwood coming to town.

When the teams take the nicely stenciled field there will be bedlam for the crowd, and a nice sense of satisfaction for Neff and the many others like him who work so hard to make these moments memorable.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.