A roster stacked with college prospects, the state championship favorite role and a national ranking have put the Grayson High School football program in the spotlight, for better or worse.
Over the past week, it’s been the latter.
Reports surfaced last week that all but 18 Rams players walked out of an Aug. 15 practice over disagreements with the physical workouts led by head coach Christian Hunnicutt and his staff. The disgruntled players were said to have asked for Hunnicutt to be fired, but in recent days both players and parents have said that isn’t true.
Addressing the issue for the first time publicly Tuesday afternoon, Hunnicutt said the meeting between players and coaches was to address practice concerns, but nobody walked out of practice or called for his ouster. The two sides held a discussion that resolved the matter, though it was meant to be internal, not a rapidly spreading news story.
All parties were content to focus on Saturday’s season opener vs. Tucker on ESPNU, but as the story got out, the widespread narrative on the situation went one of two ways for those not connected to the Rams’ program. The first opinion vilified Hunnicutt for his over-the-top practices. The other side bashed highly recruited Grayson players as soft.
Hunnicutt made it a point to defend his players Tuesday.
“We’ve all moved on from it,” he said. “By no means are our kids soft or not tough or reluctant to work. By no means. In no way, shape or form, are our kids reluctant to work, reluctant to practice. I want to be crystal clear about that. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Our kids work incredibly hard. They are very, very competitive. We want everyone to know we’ve moved on from this.”
The coach said the Grayson administration didn’t want Rams players fielding questions about what has happened over the past week, but at least one responded via Twitter.
“For the last time, no kid tried to get Coach Hunnicutt fired and ain’t no one walk out of no practice. We good over here!” Texas commitment Kenyatta Watson II posted in a Tweet on Sunday.
Watson and his teammates are part of a Grayson senior class with remarkable football talent, something college coaches have known for years. It’s predicted that the Rams will send 40 players from the Class of 2019 to college football programs, including nearly 20 to Power Five schools. Having such high profile players, such as Watson, Owen Pappoe (Auburn), Wanya Morris (Tennessee), Trente Jones (Michigan), Kevin Harris (Alabama) and others, puts every action, good or bad, into the limelight.
A meeting between players and coaches about practice conditions? That may happen discreetly at some high school football programs. At Grayson, one leak of the meeting made it buzzworthy.
“We’ve handled it in-house and our kids have been great,” Hunnicutt said. “Our kids have been great throughout this.”
While his players have been attacked for not being tough, Hunnicutt has endured the other side. He has been labeled through news reports and social media posts as being too hard on his players, a hot-button issue at the forefront after a University of Maryland player’s death this summer resulted in head coach D.J. Durkin being placed on administrative leave.
The assertion that Hunnicutt’s practices were dangerous drew notice from some of his former players at Buford, where he spent the longest chunk of his coaching career from 1997 to 2011 as a top assistant for both Dexter Wood and Jess Simpson. He was the Wolves’ offensive line coach throughout that tenure, as well as offensive coordinator from 2004-11, during a time when the program racked up seven state championships.
“Coach Cutt cares a lot more about his players as young men having success in life than he does about your success on the field,” said former Buford lineman Ian Merrow, whose two brothers also played for Hunnicutt. “He coached it that way. Coach Cutt was tough, but he was the right kind of tough. He wasn’t off the wall or anything like that. When you’re 16, 17 years old, a little toughness is not a bad thing. Toughness goes a long way on the field, but it goes even further in the real world. He pushed you to make you better. And he never pushed you to hurt you.
“He was always the guy you could have the worst practice and he’d put his arm around you and walk down to the fieldhouse with you after practice. He pushed you to your limits but he was never over the top and never unfairly tough. I’d say the right kind of tough.”
Hunnicutt also served as head wrestling coach at Buford for six year and was respected as an Advanced Placement American government and psychology teacher, earning the school’s STAR Teacher honor in 2003.
“(Hunnicutt) was hard-nosed,” former Buford lineman Tyler Burge said. “When they say the practices are tough, no doubt about it, the practices are tough. That’s why a 6-foot-2, 195-pound center can play and compete with Gabe Wright from Carver (Auburn, NFL player) and go up and block A.J. Johnson that went to Tennessee when we played Gainesville. He takes guys that shouldn’t play on any team and turns them into something decent. You call any of these guys that played on my teams, whether they started or didn’t start. They would do anything for him because you know he’s going to do the same thing for us.”
“He was tough, but he was always fair,” said former Buford lineman Trey Chandler, who played college football at Georgia. “I can’t recall any situation where I’d look around at me and my teammate and think this is ridiculous. In no instance was it where it was unreasonable, unsafe or anything like that. … I’ve had the opportunity to play and be around a lot of great coaches. And I’ve said, even before this, I’ve said it forever now that I consider him the best football coach I’ve ever had.”
Hunnicutt only discussed his coaching style briefly in the wake of news reports that were critical of it.
“All of us coach, obviously not for the money, but because we want to be around the kids and in some way, shape or form help them, whether it’s in the classroom or on the playing field,” he said. “That’s why we coach, to try to help kids. Nobody wants to hurt kids.”
More than anything, Hunnicutt said his coaches and players are ready to put their discussions in the past and play a meaningful football game. The Rams have plenty of them in a regular season that also includes games with Bergen Catholic (N.J.), Marietta, Westlake and Colquitt County before region play begins.
“We’re past (any issues),” Hunnicutt said. “Honestly, our focus has really been getting ready for Tucker. That’s it.”