ROGERSVILLE — It was hard to tell if Rogersville Middle School's football players were more thrilled with the special delivery they received on Aug. 24 or by the man who delivered it.
The Warriors were chosen specifically by legendary quarterback Peyton Manning to receive an equipment grant from Riddell Sports including uniforms, pads, tackling dummies, a player hydration system and 40 "InSite" smart helmets that record hits.
In what may be the best kept secret in the history of Rogersville, Manning and representatives from Riddell delivered the equipment after school on Friday, Aug. 24. Manning then worked out on the field with the team for about an hour and a half.
Then, after enjoying the most amazing day of practice in their lives, players weren’t allowed to tell anyone about it because Riddell wasn’t making the official grant announcements until Wednesday.
RMS coach Jeremy Bailey said that the new equipment, and their one-on-one coaching with Manning, made his players feel "invincible".
And it showed in their first game after the Manning visit. Facing conference champion Church Hill Middle School last week as a 3-4 touchdown underdog, Rogersville fought neck and neck with the champions, only to lose on the last play 38-36.
Still, Bailey said his players have a new-found confidence.
Concussion monitoring and prevention
Despite the school's limited resources, Bailey had already purchased eight InSite smart helmets for the team last year as part of the Smarter Football Initiative to monitor his players’ hits to the head.
There are thousands of micro sensors inside the helmets, and during a game or practice coaches carry a "pager" that will tell them if a player suffers a hit to the head that is within the concussion threshold.
That hasn't happened yet at RMS, but if it does, the player will be pulled off the field and put through concussion protocol.
But the helmets also record every hit a helmet takes.
Bailey can use data collected from helmets as a coaching tool, to record if and when his players are lowering their heads during blocks and tackles so he can pass that info on to the player as something they need to improve.
These were the uses for the smart helmets that Bailey talked about in his application for the Riddell equipment grant.
Why pick RMS for this grant?
That's the question Bailey asked Manning while they met together for a one-on-one chat on Aug. 24.
"He said the preciseness, that I was very detailed in what I wanted with my program, why I wanted it, and most of all I showed that we were a school with need," Bailey said. "We've been scraping by for years trying to do the most with the least amount of money in the state. And we were the first middle school program in the state to start buying InSite smart helmets last year. He said the fact that we bought eight, despite our limited resources, showed we're ready to go full throttle before any other middle school."
Bailey added, "I think what convinced Riddell especially is that I was going to commit to their InSite program and to that new technology. They told me, the more teams we have with this technology, the better we can build our helmets."
In Peyton Manning's words
The official grant announcement won't be made until Wednesday, but on Monday, Riddell somewhat let the cat out of the bag by posting a three-minute video on YouTube from Manning's visit to RMS.
"The Smarter Football Movement is a collective appreciation for this game and the values and lessons it provides," Manning says in the video. "Discipline, accountability, sacrifice and teamwork. In a small town nestled in the foothills of Tennessee, a town with ancestry linked to Davy Crockett, one school epitomizes the value in those lessons. Rogersville Middle School."
"The people in this corner of the country are resourceful, committed and strong. It's why they practice Smarter Football — growing the game through smarter equipment, practice habits and coaching."
The best part of the video is the surprise, joy and gratitude on the faces of the players when they enter their locker room and see their new equipment laid out in front of them.
The icing on the cake is when, as they are trying on their new helmets and shoulder pads, Manning walks out of the coach's office, much to everyone's astonishment.
Manning continues, "With their commitment to a smarter level of play, brand new equipment means no longer having to do the most with the least, but now with the freedom to coach, practice and play. As Smarter technology permeate the football landscape, programs like Rogersville provide evidence of a strong present and an even stronger future of our game."
Practicing with Peyton
Manning revealed his presence to the players around 3:15 p.m., and within 15 minutes he was out on the field with the team, coaching the quarterback and working with receivers.
Bailey said, "He showed (the quarterback) his three step drop, plant his foot and throw, working with the wide receivers, talking about them being crisp on their routes, coming back to the ball, curls and hitches. Talking to the quarterbacks about staying in the pocket. Use your feet. Use your eyes. See it happen and just be accurate on your throws. He stayed from 3:30 to 5 p.m. just working offense."
"That was the cool thing about Peyton. He wasn't there to sign autographs and take pictures. He wanted to be out there with the kids coaching."
What changed after Peyton's visit?
The game before Manning’s visit RMS lost to Unicoi 38-6. The game after Manning's visit, RMS fought conference champion Church Hill to the wire and fell short one two-point conversion at the buzzer.
"They're inspired," Bailey said. "All I heard was it (Manning's visit) was the best day of their life, it felt like Christmas in August, and nothing this great has ever happened to them. They just believe in themselves now. They have a new pride. They're wearing those jerseys, they're focused, and there’s a fire about them now. They feel invincible."