Senior class took charge of team and returned it title game
Before the season started, members of the Russellville football team heard the fans talking.
People were predicting the Golden Tigers would only win about four games and would probably miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
The senior class was not buying into all the negative talk. The Golden Tigers not only exceeded expectations, they reached the state title game and finished the season with a 13-2 record.
"It meant a lot," said Stratt Byars. "Everyone said we couldn't do it."
Thanks to the leadership of 14 seniors with more than 35 years of combined experience at the varsity level, the Golden Tigers returned to the level of success associated with Russellville football.
This group of seniors includes Demorian Abernathy, Byars, Jordan Fisher, Bradley "Cornbread" Franklin, Scotty Freeman, Justin Fretwell, Cody Fuller, Chase Gilmer, Nathan McAlister, Jesse Mills, Robin Nelson, Mario Roman, Kevin Vincent and Chase Woods.
While all of these seniors understand the tradition of Russellville football, wearing the black and gold meant different things to them during their career.
Fretwell said he has been impressed by the Russellville tradition since he was a little kid and always wanted to play for the Golden Tigers.
Franklin said transferring from Colbert Heights meant quite a bit to him as he moved from a program with a poor football tradition to a program with one of the richest traditions in the state.
Golden Tiger football meant much more than the tradition to Roman.
"Being able to actually call people friends," Roman said. "Every Friday I would give a speech. The best one I told was about us being brothers.
"When we were supposed to go 4-6, this team came together more than any other team I have been on."
During the season, many of these seniors made key plays that helped the team's success.
Abernathy recorded a sack in the closing seconds of Russellville's 35-31 victory against Fort Payne in the opening round of the playoffs.
A week later, McAlister caught both touchdown passes and had an interception to seal a victory against Madison County.
Vincent stopped Cullman from picking up a first down on a fake punt, giving the Golden Tigers excellent field position. Roman scored seven plays later to put Russellville ahead 14-13.
Chase Gilmer caught the first touchdown pass of his career during the state championship game. It was a 20-yard reception to cut the lead Vigor lead to 21-10.
"It felt good," Gilmer said. "We tried to get a spark going."
The play did spark the Golden Tigers as the team rallied to take a brief 23-21 lead in the third quarter, but Vigor pulled away late to capture the championship.
But McAlister had one final play to make before he hung up the cleats for good.
McAlister hauled in a pass late in the fourth quarter and raced 75-yards for the Golden Tigers' final touchdown of the season.
Other seniors had memorable moments, but they did not have as much of an impact.
Woods recovered a blocked punt and returned it a few yards before the other team brought him down and Fuller recorded a sack against St. Paul.
Of course, not all of the seniors had moments that were so glorious.
Nelson said the two things he will remember most was when he was the victim of a blindside hit at Butler and missing a sack against Colbert County.
Freeman, who missed the second half of the season with a knee injury, had two long touchdown runs against St. Paul's called back because of penalties.
The team got off to a good start, but stumbled against Hartselle during the fourth week of the season. Mills said that was the turning point of the season.
"We knew we could do better," Mills said. "We just had to get our stuff together."
During the rest of the season, the team pulled together and developed the desire to prove all the critics wrong.
Fisher said being part of this team with the people he grew up with made this season special to him.
"It really meant a lot, everybody doubted us," Abernathy said. "This being our senior year, we finally made it."
There is no doubt this team has earned its spot in Russellville football lore, but the seniors are hoping future teams will learn from what this squad was able to accomplish.
Gilmer said he hopes future teams will look at this group and realize the importance of a strong work ethic.
Franklin agreed, advising future teams to work hard for what they want and not to let anything get in their way.
"When you look at it on paper, we were the smaller team most of the time," Fretwell said. "We went 13-2."