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Story of Bainbridge’s 2018 football season told in new book

The worst natural disaster in Georgia’s recent history set the stage for one of its most inspirational sports stories. The newly released book, Small Town Big Dreams, reveals the journey of a small Georgia town and its most unlikely state champions, the 2018 Bainbridge High School Bearcats.

Hurricane Michael crushed Bainbridge, Georgia, but that was only the beginning of the story. On October 10, 2018, the fourth strongest storm in American history ravaged the Florida panhandle and the southern one-third of Georgia, prompting the state’s then-governor, Nathan Deal, to describe Bainbridge as “ground zero” for storm damage in the Peach State. In the wake of the storm, the Georgia National Guard brought in massive quantities of bottled water and food each day, and many sought shelter in local churches or other buildings.

The town’s high school team, long a source of local pride and tradition, had struggled with a young roster and losing record by mid-October. Within a six-week span, the team had suffered through the death of a teammate’s parent, a cancer diagnosis of another parent, and the demolition of their daily lives by the hurricane.

Faced with these triple tragedies, the Bainbridge High School Bearcats pulled together as brothers and became the inspiration for their hometown. A critical moment came in the first team meeting after the storm, when players and coaches shared their stories of living without electricity, transportation or even a home. Many of the players were unable to make the team meeting, but the ones who made it had found a safe place to vent about problems and be there for their teammates.

Bearcats Head Coach Jeff Littleton and his staff sprang into action, arranging to meet the physical and emotional needs of their players and their families. Littleton called Connie and Mark Mitchell, leaders of the Bainbridge Touchdown Club, who agreed for the club to furnish dinner each day for the players. A generator was brought in so the players could use their locker room after practice each day for showers, as many had no other way to bathe.

In their first game after the storm, the team traveled to face the mighty Warner Robins High School team. Many Bainbridge players had been unable to practice, and the team was unprepared for the game but traveled anyway to fulfill their obligations. The result was a 38-0 Warner Robins blowout win. The margin, plus a late onside kick and passing plays by Warner Robins, left the Bainbridge Bearcats disappointed in the result and their opponent.

Bainbridge won its last two games to sneak into the playoffs with a 5-5 record, but few gave the Bearcats a fighting chance to win a single playoff game.

As readers will learn, this was no longer a typical 5-5 team. The Bainbridge Bearcats had become a group that had suddenly matured into a unified force, just as their hometown had come together as a team to recover and rebuild after the hurricane. The first two rounds of the playoffs brought seemingly impossible matchups against Jones County and Wayne County, but the Bearcats defeated both and quickly became the Cinderella story of the 2018 playoffs.

Then came Buford. Littleton and his staff knew the Buford name intimidated many opponents, and the Wolves’ roster loaded with future college players didn’t help. The coaches decided to disallow any use of the name “Buford” during game week, instead calling their opponent “the green team.”

Grateful for their hometown team’s inspirational play, the small town of Bainbridge brought as many fans to the Buford stadium as did the home team. The Bearcats fans, who braved freezing wind and sleet for the entire contest, witnessed a win for the ages that ended Buford’s 35-game home playoff winning streak and vaulted Bainbridge into the state semifinals.

Despite the craziness of the playoff run, the miracles were only beginning for the Bainbridge Bearcats. The state semifinal game at Stockbridge brought several plays that would have highlighted the season for most teams, but paled in comparison to the game-winning kickoff return. Many recalled the famous Stanford-Cal game in 1982 to describe the unlikely play, which included both teams touching the ball, a fumble recovery, and an option-style pitch from a Bainbridge linebacker to a running back for the run to glory and the state championship game.

If anything sealed the need for the book about the Bainbridge journey, it was the opponent in the state championship game. The Bearcats faced the same Warner Robins team that had run up the score on the hurricane-damaged Bainbridge team just weeks before.

The championship game was a match made for Hollywood. University of Georgia coach Kirby Smart visited the game to see his alma mater, Bainbridge, face off against the high school of his Bulldog quarterback, Jake Fromm. Fromm’s two younger brothers played quarterback and tight end that day. The game was moved to a different day because of a professional soccer playoff game, and was fittingly rescheduled to the 36th anniversary of the only other Bainbridge state championship.

That team included another Coach Smart, the father of Kirby, who served as defensive coordinator and later as head coach. After a dizzying series of scores and lead changes, Warner Robins lined up to kick the game winning field goal as time expired, but Bainbridge star Roman Harrison blocked the kick and sent the game to overtime.

That would actually be three overtimes, after which Bainbridge became the last team standing  and the 2018 Georgia Class AAAAA state champions.

Small Town Big Dreams was authored by Tom Ward, who most recently co-authored the bicentennial book for the State of Alabama along with Secretary of State John H. Merrill. Ward, who has family connections to Bainbridge, is also the direct descendant of Stephen Heard, the war hero, Georgia governor, and namesake of Heard County. The book is based on interviews with coaches, players, boosters, media, and school administrators, as well as a variety of research sources.

The book is available on amazon.com, and signed copies can be ordered through ChurchillPress.org.