Gridiron Hawks have a new coach

Brandon Ward moved to Clinton last year from Michigan with his wife after her acceptance to the University of Tennessee, and he’s now taking over the head football coaching position at Clinton Middle School from Jason Hammock.

Before accepting the position with the Hawks, he was the varsity coach and athletic director for a small school in upper Michigan.

At his previous school, he was the head coach for the football program.

“We had to combine our rival schools to keep both programs alive,” he recalled. “We moved down a little late in the process last year, and I didn’t know what district I’d be teaching for at the time, so I stepped back for a year and read the landscape, tried to get to know the area a little more before I started applying for coaching jobs.”

Ward inevitably landed a position teaching at Claxton Elementary School along with coaching the Hawks, and said the transition has been jarring, but in a good way.

“It was a big difference between a 200-kid school with a single building and this area,” he said. “The program I came from, we played eight-man football because of the low number of students we had. Coming from an area up there where basketball and hockey are 1A and 1B, football isn’t that highly regarded, so coming down to East Tennessee where they do league football all year, it’s amazing. The support has been amazing. I couldn’t be happier.”

That difference, and that support, according to Ward, has been exciting to witness.

“The passion for the sport, and the high level the students are already coming in at, it’s awesome,” he said. “Everyone is all in on the sport. Everyone is always asking me, ‘If you need anything, just let me know.’ It’s been such an open community with everyone trying to help us succeed with the program. I’ve been able to pick up other coaches, too. Jason Leinert has been an amazing resource. He’s from the area, he knows the kids, he knows the families. I’ve gotten to talk with Coach [Darrell] Keith multiple times and he’s been nothing but supportive of what we’re doing.”

In a recurring theme, COVID-19 has drastically affected Ward’s ability to settle into his new role.

“Our first meeting was supposed to be the Monday after all the schools and stuff shut down,” he said. “That was going to be my opportunity to meet everyone, and I didn’t get it. It’s been hard to recruit new players, too. So far, I think our high has been about 28.

“On top of that, you’re taking a lot more precautions for safety,” he said. “Players have to line up like they’re getting dropped off for school every day when they get to practice. Each one has their temperature taken and goes through the COVID screening, and if a student has a high temperature or anything, we have to send them home. Keeping social distancing at practice is hard, too, but we’ve been sanitizing everything during and after practice. With football being a contact sport, it’s hard to stay six feet apart, but everyone else has to operate with that same limitation, too.”

Still, even with the limitations, the practices so far have been valuable for the team, Ward said.

“Luckily with this being the voluntary period, we’re really just trying to hammer down those proper fundamental movements, like making sure the linemen have a good stance. We can still do receiving drills, but we can’t do competition parts.

“A lot of it’s been learning and making sure people are in the proper stance. It’s been difficult. But it’s something everyone is dealing with. Especially at that level, you really need to make sure they have the fundamentals. But we still have to make sure it’s fun.”

And even with all the uncertainty around the program, Ward has a vision, and a clear direction to take the Hawks.

“From what I’ve seen, the program’s had turnover the past couple years, and we want to find the consistency to be a great feeder to the high school program,” he said. “That’s very important to me. The biggest thing is I care about the program.”