Story by Besty Maxwell West, Mother of Brayden #52. Photography by Jerry Denham, Coach and Betsy Maxwell West.
High school football… Friday Night Lights… The Boys of Fall…it’s a rite of passage, a favorite pastime, almost a religion in many small towns across the country. It’s no different at Sequoyah High School in Monroe County. They love their kids, and they love their football! Who doesn’t, right? UNLESS they aren’t winning, UNLESS they’re in a long drought, UNLESS the win that finally gets the monkey off their back remains elusive.
None of that deterred first year head coach Derrick Vestal from taking this program on and making it his own from day one! In an early team meeting, Vestal told his players that if they would be committed and put in the work, success would come. If you only measure success in wins and losses, they’re still waiting. However, if your measuring stick gauges attitude, teamwork, culture, improvement, and heart Coach Vestal is well on his way with his Sequoyah Chiefs!
For the first season in recent memory there was an excitement about Sequoyah Football and the stands were full. The “Red Squad” student section was brimming over, the hope and belief palpable on the home side of the field. Each home game, our Sequoyah Mascot, Ivy Merrell, on her horse Hatchey led the team onto the field along with the dedicated cheer squad and a talented marching band. Even as the season stretched on without a win, support didn’t waiver. With progress evident each week, the Sequoyah Chiefs prepared and played clearly displaying that they have faith in their coach and their team.
Although their record doesn’t reflect it, this season’s stats tell a story of a man on a mission to bring football back for an incredible group of young men and a faithful following! New to Monroe County, Coach Derrick Vestal says the community around his program is amazing! “They have welcomed me and my family with open arms!” Vestal continued by saying the same applies to his coaching staff. “We are all outsiders and have not had that feeling at all.” Of the football program, Vestal arrived to find it lacking structure and discipline following a season that saw the previous head coach replaced mid-season and the interim coach move on to another program. “We came in and knew that we had to change everything,” Coach Vestal remarked, going on to say, “The culture is one we implemented to ensure these guys understand that we must compete in every aspect of life.” The idea that we will get better in school, in the weightroom, the community, and everything else that we do is a stated expectation for the young men of Sequoyah Football.
Of course, everyone wants to win, and these coaches and players are hungrier for that than you can imagine! The coaches, though, agree that all the goals they have are about the kids as much or more than about football. “We want our student athletes to all be passing classes, staying out of trouble, and being hard workers,” remarks Vestal. He told players and parents in his first days at Sequoyah that when high school and football were over, his desire was for them to be good men, good husbands, and good fathers. That is a sentiment unanimously welcomed by parents and the community!
It goes without saying that Derrick Vestal and company have lofty football goals as well! Knowing they faced an uphill battle, this group of men set out in their first season to implement their philosophy and the way they wanted to attack every day. They needed to impact change and create some buy-in with the players, which was apparent all season. Vestal says of the program’s future, “Our goals are to become competitors for a playoff spot, and eventually win our region.” Pretty lofty goals, and this team is surrounded by a circle of believers who will be with them every step of the way! Coaches and the community believe the future of the program is in good hands with 40 returning underclassmen, “who understand what we are doing and what we want.” A promising group of rising freshmen players will help too. There have been facility upgrades this season, such as a completely new weight room, new locker room, and new uniforms in the works. There are plans for bigger changes moving forward! The desire is to give the athletes something to be proud of. The more pride in what they have and who they are, the more pride they will show in what they do!
Family has also been a focus of the incoming regime. They are the first line of support for the team in good times or bad! Players invited men who have been influential in their lives to an event called “Dudes and Decals” to clean and adorn their helmets with the team’s new brand. The fieldhouse was open to team families to come fellowship together and watch UT’s opening game. Not to leave out the all-important women in their lives, Coach Vestal and his wife Emily, with the support of their church, hosted “Ladies Under the Lights” to celebrate the ladies who have impacted the players. A catered meal served by the coaching staff under the lights on the field was a special time, as it was held just prior to the final game of the season. With a photographer to capture those moments together, it “was an event that is sure to become a favorite tradition.” Community pep rallies, pregame meals, and campus tailgating were also new events in rallying behind the team.
The Vonore and Madisonville communities around Sequoyah High School Football are proud of their Chiefs despite the challenges. The undisputed greatest Chief fan of all time is “Granny” Terri Sparks. A Vonore native and longtime Sequoyah Athletics enthusiast, the number of games she has attended for every sport is astounding! And after each one, you can count on a social media post of encouraging words and “Granny Cam” pictures, including the coveted selfie with Granny. At the conclusion of the last game of this season, Senior Night recognition, and the Final Lap (a tradition as old as Sequoyah High School,) Granny Terri spoke about this team and particularly our Senior Chiefs. In her unique way, Granny shared this: “They have faced countless challenges and obstacles…they have been thrust into unpleasant circumstances and in many ways had to grow up before their time. They have endured criticism and unkind words from people who should have had their backs. They willingly shouldered more responsibility for the spirit of a community than anyone could have asked of them. They have proven to be young men of integrity, fine character, and immeasurable class. When in tough and uncertain times they have never given up fighting for us and for each other. You have made us so proud…proud of the young men that you are and the ones you are destined to become.” Couldn’t have said it better than that, Granny Terri Sparks! Coach Vestal added of our Seniors, that they were a great group of guys, hungry for change and ready for structure.
Blessed to have the leadership of this group, Vestal made a statement to them that he firmly believes. He told them that even though they didn’t reap the benefits of what has been put in motion this season, they are the group that will be responsible for the product that will bloom!
Tried and true fans, parents, faculty, and friends are excited for that day to come, and come it will! Each week of the season, the football community has clung to a verse from Galatians, 6:9 “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” This team has not and will not give up! For the graduating Seniors, our love and appreciation is endless. Cooper, Emmitt, Ben, Camryn, Xander, Joshua, Cannon, Kylan, Micah, Tyler, and Cody, many thanks…you ARE Sequoyah Football and you made us proud! Rising Senior Chiefs, including my very own, we will keep believing! No advice or criticism, just gratitude for the opportunity to watch you play! We will come out, cheer, support fundraising drives, and always wear our RED on gameday!