As soon as he was hired as Indian Land’s new head football coach, Horatio Blades had 80 individual meetings with the parents of his players.
That was significant in part because some of those same parents were heavily involved in the ouster of Michael Mayer, the 16-year Indian Land coach who resigned last November. A large group of Indian Land parents launched an email campaign to get the attention of school administrators that ultimately resulted in Mayer’s departure.
Blades - Mayer’s defensive coordinator the last few years - didn’t apply for the head job right away but he eventually did after Indian Land football players encouraged him to do so.
“We’ve just seen that he was really into the kids, he believed in them, he wanted them to get into college,” said junior Jake Locklear, a college prospect on the Warriors’ offensive line. “Blades is getting a lot of colleges running through here getting good looks at the kids. The kids saw a leader in him. That’s what we wanted.”
Administrators must consider the desires of parents and student-athletes more than ever in school sports, especially with the potential strength of email or social media campaigns that bring unwanted publicity. It’s a new reality in which coaches like Blades, the former Washington Redskins linebacker, have to work.
“It’s not something I’m worried about because one thing you learn as a professional athlete is not every situation is gonna be ideal,” said Blades. “You’re gonna deal with people that disagree with you, people that want you fired, that have all these different opinions of you. But you can’t let that deter you, you just have to keep fighting and putting your best foot forward.”
Blades said he has an open door policy for players and their parents.
“I’m not saying everything’s gonna go their way, I just want to hear what people have to say.”
That Blades is still involved with football after a stellar playing career isn’t surprising. His father, Benny, and uncles Brian and Al, all played in the NFL. After starring at Pitt - Blades was the 2006 Big East defensive player of the year - he suited up for four seasons in the NFL.
Blades played in the 2001 Continental Tire Bowl and was impressed with the Charlotte area. He moved south after hanging up his uniform and volunteered at Parkwood High School (N.C.) for a season. He then joined Mayer’s staff in 2013.
“I didn’t want to give it up so I had to be involved somehow,” said Blades. “It’s a calling so that’s why I wanted to volunteer and see if it was something I wanted to do.”
I love working with kids, I love teaching the game of football, I love the atmosphere, the camaraderie that the sport of football brings to a team and also a community. That’s something I didn’t want to break away from.
Indian Land coach Horatio Blades
Blades is from Florida so he liked that the Carolinas have four distinct seasons, even if they sometimes get mixed up. Indian Land’s first spring practice in full pads was a perfect example. Between temperatures in the low 60s and pads popping as players hit each other for the first time in five months, it felt like an October mid-season practice.
‘That’s what we’re fighting for’
It will be October soon enough and Indian Land is still trying to catch up after moving up to the 3A classification last season. It was the school’s second move up in the last seven years, and the biggest transition yet, football-wise. By the end of 2016, Indian Land had nine defensive starters that were freshmen or sophomores so it’s clear where the Warriors need to make the biggest leap to contend in their new classification.
“They’ve been busting their butts in the weight room because they know now how physical it is, how much bigger the kids are and how much faster the kids are,” Blades said.
The new coach is also trying to establish more connections between his program and the community. Indian Land is growing dramatically and it can feel like a transient place, especially with a main street that’s a highway, US-521. Teenagers play football for various reasons, but community can be a wholly unifying force for a one-town school, according to Blades.
“They’ll know they represent this community and when they see them in the stands every Friday night, they’ll know, ‘hey, that’s what we’re fighting for.’”
370 Indian Land had an enrollment around 370 students when Michael Mayer was hired as the Warriors’ head football coach in 2001. the school’s enrollment is now close to 900 and should top 1,000 in the coming years.
People just want to be heard
Blades is embracing parental involvement, instead of hiding from it.
“Parents are more involved, especially at a school like this,” he said. “We have a ton of great kids, both academically and character-wise. That speaks to how their parents have raised them so I would expect nothing less than the parents being involved. What we’re trying to do, they’re gonna have a niche where they can help the program.”
Blades heard desires for the Warriors to revert to the gold helmet with the spear logo that the program had in the past, so Indian Land’s helmets will look very similar to Florida State’s this season. He’s leaning on parents’ help to organize a fund-raising golf tournament and build up support infrastructure for the growing football program. And the 80 individual parent meetings certainly didn’t hurt as far as first impressions go.
“Sometimes people just want to be heard,” said Blades.
Game balls from Blades’ playing days in college and the NFL line his desk; the sundries nod to his connections with college football coaches, who he hopes will visit the school more often. And the footballs and trophies give him credit with the players and their parents, both of whom he needs on his side.
“It’s not an us versus you-type of mentality,” he said. “It was like, how do we work together? How do we make for the best high school experience for these young men? That was my focus and I think the parents’ focus as well.”