When Matt Turner took over at Warren County in 2019, the school was coming out of a raging debate about region alignments. At the time, Warren County had tried to ask the TSSAA to be realigned in football – away from Rutherford County – and was unsuccessful. What the leaders didn’t do was opt to play a non-region schedule, one that would’ve allowed for the school to schedule 10 games against anybody (but lose the ability to make the playoffs).
At the time, I thought it was a foolish decision. Warren County was a decade removed from making the playoffs by merit (it got automatic playoff bids in 2015-16) and was closing in on 30 years of losing seasons. To make matters worse, the 2018 team had barely made it through the season with enough guys to play – even causing some to (rightfully) believe Warren County would forfeit games that season.
In our first media session after his hiring, the realignment debate was brought up. Turner argued that it was good for Warren County and he knew the Pioneers would compete. I repeated my skepticism, even saying I thought he was wrong. Turner flashed a defiant stare - one people have seen on the sidelines a lot - and let me know that he would remember what I said.
He showed me how wrong I was over the last two seasons. In that same time period, when we’ve become friends, Turner has succeeded in making me look wrong a lot.
I thought he should’ve moved Braylon Grayson to varsity in 2019, arguing the freshman could play. Turner wanted to give Grayson time to grow while dominating freshman and JV games. When Grayson showed up last fall as a sophomore, he hadn’t been beaten down by any growing pains as a freshman – instead, he was dominating and became an all-region player instantly.
I privately told Turner before this year’s Blackman game that I could never envision Warren County going up by 21 points on the Blaze, instead telling him I wanted to see what happened when the Pioneers trailed for a change. Turner was smiling from ear-to-ear when CJ Taylor busted an 80-yard run in the first half, putting the Pioneers up 21 and beginning CJ's push toward being Mr. Football. Warren County never trailed in the contest – and were down just a few minutes total during its run to 8-0.
Even in his first year, I told Turner they should line up big late against Cookeville and play big-boy football to beat the Cavaliers. OK, maybe I was right that time.
You get the point though – Matt Turner has been right a lot when it comes to making Warren County a football success in his first two years. Because of that, I believe his is going to be right with how he plans to approach youth football.
Turner has been heavily involved in developing the Pioneer Youth Football League, which will begin play in May with three weekends of FREE training for kids in grades K-6. There will undoubtedly be a lot of excitement about the league, especially after COVID stopped almost all youth leagues last year (and again, IT IS FREE), but there are already some who are questioning the PFL’s ideas.
Mainly, people don’t want to play flag football. They want to hit.
I get it. As many have said, “football isn’t a contact sport – it’s a collision sport.” The thing that separates football from basically every other sport is its non-stop physicality. Eleven players on each side are generally hitting (or being hit by) somebody every single play – unless they’re Tom Brady, then you can’t be touched.
There are many who feel like you can’t teach football without contact. They are, in a lot of ways, synonymous. In the simplest way, I can understand why people feel like if you’re playing football, you have to be hitting people. Those are the rules after all.
When we posted about Turner holding a parent meeting for current and future Pioneers, the comment section blew up about youth football. At the time, it wasn’t the target of the conversation (it was a WCHS meeting), but I did try to ensure people there were conversations going on to have youth football this year.
The consensus, at least in those comments, was that parents weren’t going bother with local football if it was going to be flag football. Well, that’s what it’s going to be – at least for the first month of the first year of the Pioneer Youth Football League.
I think Turner is right to start with flag football. In fact, I don’t think there’s a wrong way to revive youth football locally – unless you try to do it exactly like it’s been done the last few years.
While I applaud the people who have oversaw the leagues for the last decade (those I know since I started covering in 2010), we needed a seismic change. It’s not that those organizers didn’t care or weren’t trying hard, it is just a fact that we’ve lost the luster. More importantly, we’ve lost the kids.
In 2019, I remember going to a game day at Bobby Ray and seeing three Pioneer age groups roll out on the field. One group, if I recall correctly, had 13 kids. The next team had around 15. The biggest team had less than 25. In the span of three age groups (which involved kids from 6-13), we had less than 50 players.
I know that because I remember telling people at the time that between those youth football teams and the 2018 WCMS and WCHS football teams, we were barely over 100 TOTAL football players in our county from grades K-12.
At this point, getting kids to simply pick up a football would be an instant upgrade. Putting pads on them will come in the future, but for now we have to get kids interested in the sport. More so, we have to get parents comfortable with their kids playing football.
I still talk to high school kids, some of the best athletes in the school, who don’t play football because their parents won’t let them. They don’t want to see their kids get injured. I would love for all those kids to play, because
1. I don’t think there is a demonstrably higher risk of injury in football compared to the majority of other sports.
2. More football participation means more subs, lowering the chances of Pioneers getting hurt because they’re exhausted from playing every snap.
If this gets parents to allow their kids to play football because it’s not tackle, then Turner has jumped a hug hurdle locally. Taking them from flag to pads will be another leap, but you have to start somewhere.
The Spring Fling is that starting point. Turner wants to get this cranked up in May, then really get the ball rolling by the fall, when the league can focus on even more competition.
I saw a lot of parents saying they’ll just take their kids to Manchester and play. That’s always an option - I’ve seen plenty of our kids develop at a young age elsewhere (playing travel) and come back to town to become great Pioneers.
My only word of caution would be for families to not turn their backs on Warren County school teams if you don’t play in the youth leagues here. As I wrote a few weeks back, we’re sending kids to the next level in every sport and there is plenty of development going on at home.
As much as I respect the young man and his ability, I’m sure there is some part of CJ Anthony that wishes he would’ve stayed in Warren County instead of going to Coffee County the last four years. While he was in Manchester playing football and basketball – he was at home watching the Pioneers (many of whom were his childhood teammates) play in the postseason during his senior year.
I would have loved to see how much further our football and basketball teams could’ve made it if Anthony was still a Pioneer. It’s a lesson on how the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Warren County is in pretty good hands with Turner. He’s earned my trust – and hopefully that of many more in this community. Sometimes, it’s satisfying the needs and wishes of the many over the few.
Better yet, it’s about how to attract the many. What we’ve been doing only gets a few.