At the end of practice one night earlier this week, the coach gathered his football team on one knee to deliver a stern message.
"You've got to want it more than that bunch down south," he told the players, some still breathing heavily from the wind sprints they had just finished. "It's as simple as that. You put that helmet on, you're going into battle."
Sports fans would rightly describe these words as typical coach talk, but the audience on this night was not who you might expect. This was a team of 9- and 10-year-old boys, some of whom weigh little more than 50 pounds.
Welcome to the world of Pee Wee League football, where players study game film, go on diets to meet weight requirements -- and hear it from the coaches if they don't follow directions.
'It's just football'
When the Rock Hill All-Stars travel to Charleston seeking a second straight state title on Saturday against Marlboro County, coach Thomas Richmond hopes his team will bring the same attitude as the boys who came before.
"It's not working them hard," he said of his practices. "It's just football."
Many of the greats came up through Pee Wee on their paths to stardom, names such as Gerald Dixon, Jeff Burris, Ben Watson and Jonathan Hefney. The talent-rich Rock Hill and Northwestern High teams that competed for state titles surely owed much of their success to the strength of the city's Pee Wee program. Now, South Pointe High is drawing on it, too.
"A lot of these kids play together on up through high school," said South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll, whose star quarterback, Stephon Gilmore, played Pee Wee. "That camaraderie, a lot of times when we get them, is already there."
What happens on Friday nights -- and for some, on Sunday afternoons -- starts at practices such as the ones this week on the faded grass at Hargett Park. The All-Stars beat Laurens County to advance to the title game, but defensive coordinator Cookie Massey wasn't happy with the way his defensive backs crept up too far to the line of scrimmage.
"I know I'm not the smartest man in Rock Hill," Massey told the defense after practice. "But on Saturday, ya'll made me look like the dumbest. I'm telling you to stay back."
This year, success has ridden largely on the legs of Chris Smith, viewed by some as a future Friday night stud. He is 10 years old, but he has the pedigree: His uncle is Rock Hill High and Notre Dame standout Jeff Burris, and his brother, former Bearcat defensive end DeBryon Smith, played in the Shrine Bowl last year.
On the first play from scrimmage against Laurens, Chris took a handoff and darted 63 yards for a touchdown.
"He's fast as lightning," said Willie Leak, who watched practice from behind a fence encircling the field. Leak's son, Desmond, plays fullback.
Young minds, new confidence
Richmond and his assistants point to impressionable youngsters such as Gregory Ruff, a pint-sized running back who didn't understand play calls at the beginning of the season.
"I ain't know what he was talking about at first," Ruff said after practice.
But the littlest guy on the team learned. On Saturday against Laurens, Ruff found a hole and ran 37 yards for a touchdown. Asked about the play, a smile flashed across his face: "28 pitch," he said.
This, Richmond said, is the kind of confidence that young boys can gain through long practices and tough-minded lectures.
"All of them make it worthwhile, not just Greg," he said. "From the most talented to the least talented, there's something good in all of them."
Football, he added, just helps bring it out.