Greater Atlanta Christian receiver Jake Hicks isn't exactly a small guy at 6-foot-1 and closing in on 200 pounds. Unless it's compared to offensive lineman Myles Hinton.
They had very different perspectives on a mountain biking trail, which was part of a week-long retreat for 19 Spartan seniors in the middle of June.
“That was scary,” Hicks said with a grin. “The trail was probably as wide as shoulder-width.”
“For you!” Hinton chimed in.
“That was definitely the hardest for all of us,” Hicks said.
The week in North Carolina also included a ropes/zip line course and whitewater rafting.
“Thankfully no one got hurt,” Hicks said.
Quarterback Jackson Hardy was riding the brake and still having trouble controlling the bike on the way down.
“You had to be so focused,” he said.
Linebacker Choe Bryant-Strother, who like Hardy is 6-4, nodded.
“You're flying down a mountain and you're just hoping you stay on the path,” Bryant-Strother said. “But there was a solid group that was just no fear.”
The GAC coaching staff takes its seniors on a trip like this every year.
“We just think there's real value in taking that group and getting away,” head coach Tim Hardy said. “What builds relationships is common experience. So let's go get in a raft or ride mountain bikes or do a ropes course. We create a memory. We've got a joke to tell, a story to share. That common piece, but purposeful. Rather than just hanging out, let's go do something together is pretty neat.
“It's fun to see guys get out of their comfort zone.”
His son, separately, said nearly the same thing.
“Some people were a little scared, but it's fun to encourage guys to get out of their comfort zone a little bit,” Jackson Hardy said. “We all were.”
The ropes course, with zip lines, was another fortitudinous test.
“It's fun to see the guys up there,” Hicks said. “The bigger guys, you could tell, were out of their element. Some of them were not trusting the little thing they were hanging from, but it was fun to see them push through. Because once you go, you're not coming back. You have to finish the course.”
“Evil,” a laughing Hinton said.
The week is a culmination of months of purposeful leadership development for the rising seniors. They met twice a month throughout the second semester of school. They also did an overnight lock-in, at Hinton's suggestion, in the big meeting room at the Hoover Field House in February. They set up two Xbox consoles for an “Outlast” marathon.
“We played it all night and it was terrifying,” Hinton said with a huge grin.
“We're trying to really build this group together,” Bryant-Strother said.
“It's really cool because the coaches are giving us a lot of opportunity to build the group ourselves and have responsibility,” Jackson Hardy said. “We brought that to them and they said it sounded good.”
“They want us to actually care about it and put some thought into it,” Hicks said.
What lies underneath all the fun, though, is a grim-faced determination to avoid another early-round playoff exit.
“Last year was really the first year we've come up short and not reached our potential,” Bryant-Strother said. “We were all on the field when it happened and we felt it really hard. Now we're really doing everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen again.”
The seniors are deliberate in their connection with each other — they have a 19-person group chat that often overloads their phone notifications — and the underclassmen.
“We're just really trying to buy into each other, be self-sacrificial, love on each other and all the younger guys, because we know how valuable they are to the program,” Jackson Hardy said. “That relationship is so valuable.”
“After what happened last year, losing early and not achieving what we wanted to, it was an eye-opener for a lot of us,” Hicks said. “It's not clockwork. We're not (automatically) going to make the Final Four every year. We're going to have to work for it.”
“It all seems given until it's taken from you,” Bryant-Strother said.
“I feel like we're off to a good start because all of our senior class is already friends,” Hinton said.
The retreat closed some natural gaps in a large group of high schoolers.
“This year's group is outstanding,” Tim Hardy said. “In a group of 20, all 19 aren't your best friends. You've got two or three you gravitate toward. We try to create an environment where that's not too much of the case, but we don't want to over legislate that. It's fun to see this group cross-pollinate. Everybody is with everybody having a good time.”
They returned from the week, where phones were put away, dialed in.
“I feel like I came back knowing everyone was on the same page,” Hinton said. “Before, everyone had an idea and knew what they wanted, but to, as a team, to set goals — the words we picked were resilience, belief and perseverance. Everything to do with not giving up.”
They also made it clear that any criticism comes without rancor and only as a way to make the team better.
“Before, kids would kind of get defensive,”' Bryant-Strother said. “Now, I feel like they're taking it a lot better.”
“And before, it was a lot of ideas,” Hicks said. “Now, we have to take action. Because we can say it all we want. Talking about it isn't going to do anything. We have to take action and do what we said we were going to do to make our season great.”
“This group really cares about each other,” Jackson Hardy said, looking at the three other seniors sitting to his left and right. “I think we really have the potential to accomplish anything and I think it's going to be a great year.
“Everyone is taking accountability for their actions. Everyone cares. Everyone really is all-in to the team and what's best for the team.”
“I feel like the culture has shifted a little bit,” he said. “If I don't talk to Jackson and we aren't friends, and then I'm criticizing him, he's going to be like, 'We're not even friends, why is this dude talking?'”
“You have to build trust in a relationship,” Jackson answered.
“You can't take money out of a bank that you don't have money in,” Bryant-Strother said.
Hardy reached over to give Bryant-Strother a fist bump for that off-the-cuff wisdom drop and everyone else nodded again.
“As a coach, you're in it to see people grow,” Tim Hardy said. “To see a mentality grow and change, and to see people really step up and a guy that wouldn't have said this two years ago is someone that's now saying, 'Man, nobody in this group is too cool for anybody else, no one is trying to get the easy way out, nobody is trying to separate themselves.' Everyone is someone who is going to have the humility to step in and serve.
“There were some guys in this group, great guys, but guys who just have really grown in that and verbalized that. Part of our mantra this year is 'no labels, no limits.'”