MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Whenever Steve Cheatham steps on a football field, any football field, he looks down past the south end zone and in his mind sees the same image – his late father, the man who instilled in him a work ethic and energy that helps carry him through life today.
It was in that corner of the field, on the home side at Neshoba Central High School in Philadelphia, Miss., some five years ago, that David "Bubba" Cheatham watched his son coach for the last time. Now, whether at practice or on game day, Faulkner's new defensive coordinator looks down toward the south end where his father would always be, and nods.
"I do it every single time, no matter where I am," said Cheatham, fighting back tears. "It's my way of honoring him and what he meant to me and my career. He taught me to never get out-worked, and to love what I do. He was in a wheelchair that last game, and I can still see him plain as day down there watching me coach."
Cheatham's energy and excitement is displayed both on and off the football field, and it has become a welcome dynamic for first-year head coach Brent Barker and the Eagles' football team. Barker's primary goal when he hired Cheatham in December was simple – to turn around a defense that was statistically one of the worst in the NAIA last season. Through spring practice and the early stages of fall camp, Barker has seen a big change in attitude and excitement in the football fieldhouse.
"I've made a lot of decisions since I took the job late last year, but I truly believe the best one I've made was hiring coach Cheatham," Barker said. "The level of energy he's brought to this program is contagious and is wearing off on all of us, from players to coaches to managers to trainers to water girls. It's really been incredible."
Cheatham and his defensive staff, which includes four assistants who played collegiate football in the Southeastern Conference, realize the change in attitude, preparation and excitement must translate into performance on football Saturdays. He says he'll accept nothing short of striving for excellence every day.
"We're going to play hard, play smart and play to have fun," said Cheatham, 56, who has coached with David Cutcliffe, Ken Hatfield and Tommy West at Ole Miss and Clemson in his career, including a 17-year stint at high school powerhouse Neshoba Central as both an assistant and head coach.
When the last five years of his life is taken into account, the fact that Cheatham's favorite song is Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" is completely understandable. First, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 and, just a month after successful surgery, received third-degree burns on much of the left side of his body as a result of an accident on his Mississippi farm. The successful road to recovery from both, while be it long and strenuous, left him with a fresh new outlook.
"God healed me physically from two very serious situations, and it made me realize just how precious life is and my plan is to live every day to the fullest," he said. "I enjoy life and people, and God still has plans for me here on earth. And, just as my dad taught me, I'm gonna love what I do and do it to the very best of my ability. That song came out right during the time all this stuff was going down, and I just adopted it. It seems to fit."
Visitors to Faulkner practices need little time to pick out the Eagles' defensive coordinator, since he can be seen and heard encouraging his troops through words and chest bumps. He's also good for a head butt or two on occasion and has left the practice field numerous times with blood trickling down his face.
"He has really changed the entire atmosphere on our side of the ball," said Faulkner returning starting safety Zeke Pigg. "Everything is up-tempo and high energy, and he and coach Barker and the rest of the staff have done a wonderful job of bringing this entire team together. It's not just offense over there and defense over here now. We're a team. And we're all excited to see how things play out this season."
Faulkner's performances on offense and defense were in stark contrast last season. The offense, led by All-American quarterback Josh Hollingsworth, scored more than 43 points a game, but the Eagles won only three times. The primary reason was the defense's inability to make stops, allowing an average of 52 points a game.
"Things are going to be different this year," Pigg said. "We know they are. We're together. We have a connection. And that means everything."
Just like Pigg, Cheatham knows all about the power of a connection. He re-lives every day the incredibly impactful one he shared with his father - just by going to work.
EAGLE PRACTICE NOTES - Aug. 8
Barker sees improvement as Eagles turn up the heat
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Faulkner head coach Brent Barker watched his offense and defense go toe-to-toe in full pads early Wednesday morning, and liked the competitive spirit that came from the two-hour workout at John Mark Stallings Field.
The practice was the Eagles' first in full pads as preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener in Wise, Va., against Mid-South Conference rival UVA-Wise moves into high gear. Faulkner's first full-squad scrimmage is scheduled for Friday night at 8:15, and the public is welcome to attend.
"These guys are really competing, and that is going to allow us to continue to improve," Barker said. "This team will be as deep as any Faulkner team ever has been, and we're very pleased about that. Our players are working extremely hard in this heat to earn playing time, and our entire staff has been very happy with the effort and the improvement we've seen."
After skeleton drills and position work dominated the first half of practice, the last 45 minutes was reserved for 11-on-11 action, with both the offense and defense showing positive signs, according to Barker.
"The defense has been dominating, so it was good to see the offense turn it around a bit and make some plays," he said. "It's kind of a weird situation, wanting both sides of the ball to do well. To be honest, we'll be glad in about three and half weeks to play somebody else."
Junior quarterback Josh Hollingsworth has seen a noticeable improvement across the line of scrimmage in team drills this fall. Last season the Eagles' defense struggled mightily, putting pressure on Hollingsworth and the potent Faulkner offense to keep up in high-scoring shootouts. Enter new defensive coordinator Steve Cheatham and entirely revamped defensive staff, and things are looking a bit different in "ones against ones" scrimmage situations.
"The defense looks totally different than it did a year ago," Hollingsworth said. "They are fast and they are big, and they are ready to play. And they are helping us on offense, because the tougher they can make it on us the better we'll be prepared on Saturdays."
Starting safety Zeke Pigg has welcomed the new outlook on defense. And he's ready to be tested by the talented MSC offenses the Eagles will face this fall.
"No doubt things are different, but we have to prove it once we kick it off," Pigg said. "Last year was very frustrating. And we're looking forward to completely erasing that memory from our minds."
The season opener on the road against UVA-Wise is set for a 5 p.m. kickoff. The Eagles' home opener is against Lindsey Wilson on Sept. 22, the first game scheduled for Faulkner's new 4100-seat, on-campus stadium. The Faulkner junior varsity opens its season Aug. 25 in Montgomery against Atlanta Prep Academy at 5 p.m.