The Smithson Craighead Academy Eagles are so good they don’t even have to play games to come out on top.
Under football coach Maurice Fitzgerald, the middle school has rattled off an impressive record since the school was started in 2009, notching two city championships in the past three seasons. Such success, however, has drawn a skeptical eye from some schools that are — at least on paper — in the same league, as well as a flat-out refusal to step onto the field with the seventh- and eighth-graders of the nascent Madison charter school.
This year, the Eagles are off to a head-scratching 1-0 start after five scheduled games.
That’s right. Five scheduled games, one played, one won.
What good is being on top of the heap if the only moves the competition makes is to get out of the way?
According to Fitzgerald, a run down of Smithson Craighead’s 2012 schedule so far looks like this:
Sept. 6 vs. Madison Middle, forfeit; Sept. 13 at Neely’s Bend Middle School, forfeit; Sept. 20 vs. Two Rivers, win; Sept. 27 at DuPont Hadley, 48-0 win; Oct. 4 Homecoming 2012 vs. DuPont Tyler, forfeit.
The cancellations started two days before the Eagles’ first game against Madison Middle, Fitzgerald said. That news prompted Fitzgerald to send out an email to the other schools gauging the chances of playing them. Slowly, other teams responded with their own forfeits. He says he’s heard all manner of reasons: Eagles players are too old; the Smithson Craighead field is too rocky; “If we play you this week, we won’t be able to play next week.”
“I just kind of felt a conspiracy, I think, for whatever reason,” said Fitzgerald, who also serves as dean of students for the boys at Smithson Craighead.
With the forfeit by Madison, Smithson Craighead “easily” lost about $1,200 from the lack of a gate in that home game, Fitzgerald said, and perhaps at least that amount for the lost home game against Neely’s Bend. Last week, DuPont Tyler forfeited the Eagles’ homecoming game, and final home game of the season.
According to Metro Nashville Public Schools, the decision to play or not to play ultimately comes down to the individual school’s principal, very likely with input from the coach, and no reason need be given to Metro or anyone else, as long as a team completes two-thirds of its season.
Neely’s Bend principal Philip Hammonds, the only principal from one of the opposing schools to speak with The City Paper, acknowledged that he made the decision to forfeit but said he preferred not to talk about the reasons behind it.
Roosevelt Sanders, athletic director of the Metro Nashville Public Schools Athletic Department, has heard some of the concerns regarding the team fielded by Smithson Craighead, one being its “superior talent.”
Sanders said, “It’s a concern, because if I go out and I play against you, regardless of the score — it could be 30-0, 40-0, 50-0 — they could take not only that licking, but also my kids are so physically beat-up after something like that, that I really don’t have much of team to field the next week when I have to play an opponent.”
Something that appears to rub Smithson Craighead opponents the wrong way is when a player chooses to attend and play football for that school, becoming an opponent of the school he was originally zoned for. It’s an issue, according to Sanders, because of its nature as a charter school.
“That’s a general feel, too, that they’re able to pull other kids that would be in another middle school … and [Smithson Craighead] is getting the better kids and they’re playing against me and pounding me, when they could be in my building,” Sanders said, describing the perceived sentiment of other coaches.
“If you can pull from anywhere you want, you’ve got a better selection than just a designated area,” Sanders said.
Asked if rumors of recruiting — something not permitted in middle school or high school sports — had been floating around, Sanders said, “You’d have to talk to the individual schools about that.”
He added, “It’s just going to bring attention to anyone when you have that type of talent out there. … Even at the college, high school, middle school, whatever level, to continue to have the superior talent like that, you’d have to be an awfully blessed person and have all kind of favor on you just to continue to have nothing but athletes drop into your lap. You got to be doing something right.”
Fitzgerald points to his long history as a coach in high school and middle school as well as his work with kids off the field as part of the reason he attracts talent.
“They know me. The people around the city know what kind of person I am and what I try to do to help the kids … to do more than just have them play football for us,” Fitzgerald said. “Most of the time, the saying goes, ‘if you build it they will come,’ that’s true. It’s really not worth my time to go out and try to call or recruit a kid. That’s just not my style. I don’t have to.”
And Sanders acknowledged that Fitzgerald and his staff do an “excellent job” on and off the field, preparing his kids to move on beyond his program and supporting them afterward. “That in itself is a packaging thing for any parent with a child who they want to do well, academically [as well].”
For now, Fitzgerald is just trying to keep it interesting for the kids.
“It’s pretty tough when your kids practice all week, and they don’t have a game to play,” he said. “Their morale is so low because they know that they’re not going to get to play, but to their credit, they don’t even really say anything.”
As it stands now, the Eagles could make the playoffs by winning one game. But it appears they will face one more opponent this season.
By forfeiting, teams have given up any hopes of the playoffs. Donelson Middle — still on the Eagles’ schedule for Oct. 18 — appears willing to step up to the challenge, knowing that the road to the playoffs and success goes through Smithson Craighead.