Having been a part of Grady High School football since 1989 and spending the last nine years as the head coach of the Grey Knights, Ronnie Millen knows a thing or two about the game of football. The Atlanta Public School System’s “2010 Coach of the Year” has headed up six state playoff teams, including one semifinalist in 2006 and two more squads that reached the state quarterfinals. Needless to say, the well-known Grady head coach has had a big hand in creating a winning tradition and culture for a program that had an average pedigree at best before he took control.
For Millen, there have been plenty of high points. One of his fondest memories took place at Grady’s home field in 2004, when the team beat Putnam Co. 27-26 in the first round of the state tournament.
“Winning our first playoff game since the 1960’s, and to do it in the last minute at home, that was special,” he said.
But as Millen continued to change the perception Grady football, the need for changes at Grady Stadium became apparent. The team played at a rickety old facility which also hosted a multitude of APS teams. The grass was often in sub-par shape and the dressing rooms left plenty to be desired.
But that all finally changed when a one-year renovation took place last season. Now the field looks better than ever, and it may be signaling a new day for Grady football.
THE STADIUM …
Thanks to the changes, fans will enjoy a much better gameday experience at the field. Increased concessions and more handicapped-accessible facilities will please the crowds, and the stadium also features elevator usage that will surely be welcomed by everyone. It only takes a quick glance at the beautiful field from off of Monroe Dr. or 10th Street to see the obvious difference from the old facility.
“It’s like looking at a completely different stadium,” says Millen
While fans and followers of Grady are thrilled about the new grounds just across the street from Piedmont Park, Grey Knights players might be even more enthralled.
“They [the players] feel really good about it,” said Millen, “Being able to just have a nice lined-off field. The kids are excited. We had that first scrimmage game last week everyone was excited and we have a big crowd coming back for the opener.”
Among the new luxuries available to one of Grady’s most talented teams ever are new and improved locker rooms as well as field turf. Its new surface really has Millen and the team buzzing. In fact, he referenced it as his favorite part of the new Grady Stadium.
“Not having to worry about having practices rained out is big,” Millen said, “If it [the rain] stops before practice you can go on without any problems and even if it does rain you can practice.”
For the Grey Knights, the new stadium has brought a new enthusiasm not just for paying customers, but also for the players themselves.
COMING OF AGE …
Three years ago, Millen inherited a group of talented but inexperienced sophomores. Now many of those young men come into the 2010 year as three-year starters. But it was a rocky beginning.
“That spring practice I wouldn’t say it was totally miserable, but when you’ve got nine new starters on offense, you have to water down what you’re trying to do,” Millen said.
The change since then has been quite significant. Many of those once gun-shy sophomores have developed into an extremely talented group of seniors that sports several big name prospects, while the team has well over half of its starters back on both sides of the ball. The goal is to surpass last season’s success, when they lost to Flowery Branch in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs.
Among the reasons for those lofty goals is cornerback/wide receiver Damian Swann, a freakish athlete that anchors the defense and has been offered a scholarship to virtually every top Division 1 school, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida and USC. A member of the Score 44 Swann is projected as a defensive back at the next level, but he also provides a threat offensively and caught 10 touchdowns a season ago.
Then there’s speedy running back Marcus Caffey, who also sports a thick stack of letters from major football programs. Experienced senior Treveon Albert, whom the head coach hailed as one of the teams’ undisputed leaders, returns at quarterback. He will likely just have to put the ball in the hands of his two playmakers for the unit to be effective.
There will also be plenty to help protect Albert. Shaquille Atwater, Daron Wright and Rashad Reynolds all return up front.
As a battle-tested Grady team opens up their new stadium, they believe they can truly give everyone a year to remember. Clearly, the talent and familiarity with the system is there to accomplish the team’s goals.
OPENING NIGHT …
Everyone associated with the program is anxious for about Friday’s opener against McNair, the first official game to be played at GHS’ improved playing field. But Millen is more worried about winning ball games than the field turf or locker rooms.
“We have high expectations,” Millen said. “We always expect to improve upon last year and this might be the most experienced team I’ve ever had.”
With such great opportunity for this season, the anticipation to kick off the year would have been at a high level anyway. Combine that with the newfound vigor brought on by Grady Stadium’s fresh look, and there appears to be a newfound excitement for the program that hadn’t been significant in Atlanta for decades until recently.
It seems like ages ago since Millen took over a team that wasn’t especially well known. Now, at long last, the man that was so instrumental in building a program was able to see the same effort put into building an improved place to play.
“It’s a great field,” Millen said. “I can’t see anything nicer in the southeast as far as stadiums are concerned. And I’ve been a lot of them.”