Ahmaud Arbery’s old football team turned angst into love — and a perfect season
Story by Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Photographs by Micah Green for CNN
Published November 13, 2021
Brunswick, Georgia — Sean Pender knew what his football team had to do. It wasn’t going to be fun. It damned sure wasn’t going to be easy. But it had to be done.
Coaching this Brunswick High School squad would be about more than Xs and Os in his fourth season, he knew. Players were scared and angry over Ahmaud Arbery’s killing a few months earlier. Some of Pender’s assistants — including a few who’d coached Arbery — had pushed to draw more attention to the former linebacker’s death.
Now, a horrific video showing the 25-year-old being chased and shot dead had surfaced. The story was no longer a local one. Amid a rising Covid-19 threat and discordant presidential election season, Arbery would soon become a national fixture, his photo held aloft alongside George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s in protests decrying racial injustice.
For many, the world was burning. For Pender and his staff, it was time to forge men.
With the 2020 season months out, a diverse group of coaches decided this was bigger than football. They set out on a journey — along a path they still walk — to learn about themselves and each other, foster honesty across fault lines and teach their players the importance of standing as one and loving each other like family.
The Pirates’ facilities are only 3 miles from the courthouse where testimony is unfolding in the trial of three men charged with murdering Arbery as he jogged through their Glynn County neighborhood that February Sunday. Yet it feels like a million miles.
Here, the focus is school and football. The team GPA is 2.8, up six-tenths of a point since Pender took the reins in 2017 but not yet at the team target of 3.3. The Pirates are 10-0, city and regional champs and one of the best teams heading into the state’s Class 6A playoffs this weekend.
Pender and his assistants believe they’ve developed players capable of scrapping their way to the December championship game in Atlanta. That, the head coach says, is due in no small part to how they grew following Arbery’s death.
‘That could be me’
It began as an exercise in unity and healing; the winning came naturally.
“How do I save this?” Pender pondered upon seeing the division in the community seeping into his team.
In Glynn County, there were allegations of racism and corruption in how the initial investigation was handled. Wider debates over victimhood kindled tension as some implied the slain — Floyd and Taylor, too — somehow deserved it. In Arbery’s case, some posited without proof that he had stolen from the Satilla Shores neighborhood where he was gunned down.
“My first thought was, ‘All right, we’ve got to have these hard conversations,’” Pender said.
On a golf outing, he and a handful of coaches began talking about the prospect of their kids being pulled over by police. Pender, a White father of four, wouldn’t think anything of it, he told his staff. A few African American coaches responded they’d be anxious. They agreed they’d want their kids to call them, put their license on the dash and keep their hands where the officer could see them.
The conversations continued a few days later at the offensive coordinator’s house, and the coaches decided it’d be helpful to take the talks to the entirety of the predominantly Black staff.
Sitting in the “war room” where they normally discuss tactics and watch game film, most of the coaches there that day recalled “having conversations that you don’t have with random people,” as wide receivers coach Jeff Braddy put it.
They were instructed to listen and respect each other’s pain and perspective. Building trust was paramount, and it was OK to be vulnerable.
The coaches began exchanging experiences, some intensely personal. Defensive coordinator Thomas Tedder, who is Black, shared a story of when he was pulled over at 16, walking distance from his Pittsburgh home, because he’d drawn suspicion driving his father’s Cadillac.
“We all found a way to listen and share, and that to me was the best part of the meeting,” Tedder said.
“It was cool to see everybody listening,” linebackers coach Brian Edwards added. “We’re all manly men, so we’re not going to just push a button and start crying.”
Still, it got emotional.
The talks were so cathartic, so earnest the coaches knew their players needed to have the same discussions.
“In our community, we saw a lot of division starting to happen. We saw it in our kids. You could see it in what they posted on Twitter,” Edwards said. “When the video came out, our kids was hurt because they felt that was one of their brothers.”
It was no minor task getting teenage boys to share feelings, the coaches said. Since 2019, the team motto has been “all about the family.” The mantra was being tested, but the coaches knew the players could navigate their pain just like they had.
They began holding Talk About It Tuesday. That first week, the conversations revolved around three questions: How have recent social injustices affected you? How can you make a difference with social injustice? What would you like to see the football program do to promote unity?
One youngster told Braddy, “I’m scared.” Another said, “That could be me.” Some were angry, others confused. A few didn’t know how to feel.
“When they got their emotions out and they heard each other, that was big, especially in the teenage world,” Braddy said.
Yet sorting through it as a team was the answer to only the first question.
Carrying Arbery on a march for unity
As the players searched for ways to heal, they addressed the second and third: They wanted to march — not to protest or put anyone on blast but to provide an example of unity for the community, coaches said.
It feels like a weighty burden to lay on teenagers consumed with school and sports and still reeling from the traumatic shooting of a former player with whom most of them shared the same skin tone. How did the coaches know they could handle it?
“We asked them,” offensive coordinator Garrett Grady said.
On June 23, 2020, they met at the high school. Pender took the podium and told those in attendance that the Pirates had come together as a family to talk about social issues that “handicap and harm our student-athletes.” In the coming season, his team would look to win not only on Friday nights but in life, Pender vowed.
“In a world full of division and deceit, we are able to open the minds and listen to each other, share in uncomfortable conversations that without love and trust for one another could have negative results,” he said. “However, because we made a choice to love each other like family, we collaborated to make a stand for unity and set an example for our community.”
He closed with a twist on a motivational quote Arbery used to say on the football field, provided to him by Arbery’s cousin and teammate: “You know you can do better. Don’t give us half effort. We need you in the community. We need 100% out of you.”
Two hundred or so marchers took part, including coaches’ and players’ families, police officers, a county commissioner and a political candidate. Most came decked out in masks and Brunswick blue.
In 1963, the year of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” and the Birmingham church bombing, Brunswick was cementing a reputation as a “model Southern city” for race relations, owing to its White students and parents joining the fight for voluntary school integration.
Now, almost 60 years later, students and parents were again calling for racial healing in a nation roiled by division. Edwards felt as if he were witnessing something right out of the civil rights movement, he said.
Defensive backs coach Willie Bolden, who played and graduated with Arbery, had gone into the equipment room after his friend’s death and found his old No. 21 jersey. He’d had it framed, and the marchers carried it on a trek that began and ended at the high school, traversing the surrounding neighborhoods — a journey of 2.23 miles, symbolic of the date Arbery died.
“It was kind of like he was walking with us,” Bolden said.
When the march ended, the players continued their work. They registered residents, including a third of their senior class, to vote. They fed more than 400 families on Thanksgiving. Students hung a handmade banner near the school entrance, exhorting passersby to, “Let us love one another.” The community reciprocated. Supporters called asking how to provide meals for the team. A local dentist visited the fieldhouse to craft molds for custom mouthpieces.
‘It was like a seed that we all planted’
Kanaya Charlton, a brick wall of a 17-year-old who has committed to play offensive lineman for the Florida State Seminoles next season, recalls the team’s change in demeanor.
“Once we started having these hard conversations about many different things, we felt a brotherhood among the coaches and the players. Once you have that brotherhood, you’re ready to fight for each other,” he said. “We knew if we came together as a team — because our team is diverse — if we could come together for a common goal, everyone could do the same.”
“You can’t stop your mistakes if you don’t learn from the past,” the 6-foot-5, 345-pound guard said.
Eighteen months later, the team still meets for Talk About It Tuesday, touching on topics like discipline, temptation, commitment or whatever’s going on in the guys’ lives. On Mondays, they talk motivation and focus. Pender provides a word and mindset of the week. Ahead of the last home game against Bradwell Institute, the word was urgency. The mindset, on the clock.
The conversations bear fruit in more than Ws. Upperclassmen mentor freshmen. Assistant coaches lead parts of practice. Seniors run pregame drills. It goes back to being a family and setting an example for the community. While Arbery’s death still weighs on some players, they’ve channeled the tragedy into building character and being champions.
“This all has been inspired by the Ahmaud tragedy,” Pender said. “Through this tragedy we decided to come together as one and not allow others to divide our team nor our staff.”
Seniors Chuckobe Hill and Ree Simmons are part of the running back corps known as The Wolfpack. They’re leaders, as evidenced by how they take charge in warm-ups, encourage their teammates and, of course, score touchdowns. They both remember a shift from an individualist to a team mentality that began before Arbery, they said, but ramped up during their junior season.
“With the Ahmaud Arbery situation, it was kind of tough. I didn’t know how people was going to react,” Hill said. “When we did that Unity (March), I feel like it opened the eyes of our community. We’re really here. That brought more of the community to our side.”
“We picked them up. They picked us up,” said Simmons, the lightning to Hill’s thunder in Brunswick’s backfield.
“It was like a seed that we all planted,” he continued, “and it just grew and kept growing because more people kept watering it.”
Added Hill, “It could’ve caused people to turn on each other, but as a team, we had to lead by example.”
‘I love y’all boys’
The night before their final home game October 29, the seniors gathered for dinner before filing out to the balcony over the south end zone of Glynn County Stadium to share their favorite memories and what the season means to them. It started with fraternal ribbing and laughter, but soon a lot of “I love yous” were being thrown around.
“It’s been a rough ride,” defensive end JJ Saunders said. “It’s been ups and downs, and that’s why we are where we are today because we’re able to overcome those challenges, so I love y’all boys.”
Some of the athletes have difficult home lives, no surprise in a city where 1 in 3 residents live in poverty, nor at a school where more than half the student body received free or reduced-price lunch last year. The coaches feed them in more ways than one. They’re father figures and speak of the players like sons. The coaches’ wives and children are as much mothers and siblings as they are fans.
“You’re not just affecting each other, this football team. … You’re affecting a school, a city, a country,” Edwards told them. “This is something, you can always say, ‘Hey, listen. I am a change agent. I make people move differently because I’m a positive individual, and at the end of the day, you’re not going to stop me.’”
Charlton revealed to teammates he turned down an invitation to one of the nation’s premier sports academies because of the brotherhood he’d found in Brunswick. Charlton has an actual brother on the team, running back Leon Charlton. The players laughed when Kanaya mentioned Leon was adopted, but the big fellow shushed them. This was no joke. They quickly simmered down.
“I still love him because that’s my brother no matter what, just like y’all are. We may not be blood, but y’all all have a special place in my heart,” he said. “I don’t know how. It just came over me. I said, ‘I’m not going to go there. I’m going to stay here with my family,’ because I really love y’all boys, and that’s something I can’t say about a lot of people.”
It isn’t just seniors behaving like brothers. Two weeks ago, “Touchdown” Terry Mitchell, a sophomore who’s earned a starting role, told Braddy it was fine if he benched him to let the seniors play in the final home game. Braddy marveled later over how a rising star — a wide receiver, football’s ultimate diva no less — was willing to step back for others.
‘All gas, no brakes’
In the locker room before the Bradwell game, running backs coach Kregg Richardson huddled with The Wolfpack. While Brunswick High was heavily favored, the coaches implored the Pirates to focus as if they were taking on the best in the state.
In unison, the backs recited the five qualities “Coach Rich” demands of them: commitment, discipline, unity, work ethic, toughness.
“That’s going to carry through us no matter what we go through in life, no matter what we go through on the field tonight, all right?” Richardson told his charges. “Hold on to the ball and let’s go get this W.”
“I just give them something to believe in,” he said later. “That’s all kids want.”
The players showed up about two hours before kickoff, stepping off the bus to the Archie Eversole anthem, “We Ready.” Before stretching, players lined up in the south end zone and locked arms, spanning the width of the field. They marched end zone to end zone in what’s known as the “unity walk.” Since the video of Arbery dropped, they’ve done it before every game.
Beneath the opposite goalpost, a lesson awaited. Pender’s thirst for inspiration is endless. He borrows tutelage from myriad sources: among them, the Bible, motivational speakers, the story of the Golden Buddha and the biographies of dozens of coaches from all sports, including Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, for whom Pender played at Valdosta State in the 1990s.
On this Friday, coach Jason Vaughn, director of football operations and chief hype man, reminded the team how Moses overcame Pharoah without an army, a story they’d clearly heard before. No matter their record, Bradwell Institute was Pharoah, and like Moses, the Pirates were ready to use their gifts and blessings to take down the foe. Players confirmed with a hearty, "Yessir!"
What’s the word? “URGENCY,” the team barked.
What’s the mindset? “ON THE CLOCK,” they replied.
As the players mentally prepared for the game, Nardo Wick and Lud Foe tracks thumping through the locker room, the Pirates’ faithful showed up for senior night. Older fans and boosters sought photos with players. Younger fans reached down from the brick-façade bleachers for a dap or high five from the sideline.
The Pirates took the field with a nip in the air, the ground a touch soggy from the previous day’s rain. The Wolfpack peeled off five touchdowns on the way to a 49-6 rout over the winless Bradwell Institute.
A week later, a few hours after lawyers in the Arbery trial wrapped up opening statements, Brunswick High weathered a brutal second half to beat rival Effingham County 21-18 and secure its first outright regional title since 2009.
Destiny was the week’s word. The mindset was “all gas, no brakes.”
“No brakes,” Pender said. “We are going to push the gas pedal to our destiny.”
On Saturday, they headed to the playoffs as the first Pirates team to go undefeated in the regular season since 1999. They crushed a metro Atlanta team at home, 60-26.
The word of the week? Family. The mindset was an acronym Pender once saw on a T-shirt.
“Forget about me. I love you.”