There will come a time this fall when the first report cards of next school year are released. And Chester’s Gene McCaskill will probably shake his head at a memory he’ll never forget.
McCaskill was a ninth grader in 2004 when Victor Floyd was hired to take over the Chester football program for the first time. When the first report cards came out on a Friday, Floyd ordered the football players with any D grades or lower to report to the stadium Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. McCaskill, who had a D in social studies, was among the punished.
“Everybody was just dropping like flies, walking off the field like, ‘this dude’s crazy,’” he remembers.
The group ran up the stadium’s grassy hill between 200 and 300 times and so many quit and left that Chester was unable to field a JV team that season. Eight freshmen stayed and were immediately moved up to varsity, and seven of them played in the state championship four years later.
“He promised us that if we stuck around that it was gonna be good for us in the end,” said McCaskill, who graduated from Chester with a 3.4 GPA and went on to play college football at Kentucky. “He kept his promise and that’s why I respect him so much.”
Floyd was rehired by Chester earlier this week and will be at the school Friday to meet his new team. When he begins full-time July 1, he’ll likely clean house in much the same way as he did 11 years ago.
Folks around town, especially those that know Floyd, are excited by his return after seven years in Georgia. Chester hasn’t had a lot of good news lately, and the murder of city councilman Odell Williams back in November and subsequent tensions between young people and law enforcement have the town on edge. While Floyd is no superhero summoned by a beacon in the sky, his presence could help the community in this moment.
“The state that our young people in Chester are in right now, he’s a big disciplinarian and I feel like it was a great move,” said McCaskill, who was a football assistant coach for the Cyclones this past season. “Playing for him, I know what he brings to the table and that’s what we really need right now.”
“It’s a real good thing for the county as a whole,” said Lewisville head coach Will Mitchell, whose Lions will face Chester in the 2015 season opener in August.
Mitchell was Floyd’s defensive coordinator at Chester from 2004 to 2007, and for two more years down in Brunswick, Ga.
“He’s a guy that automatically walks in the door and because of the success that we had he has some name recognition, some built-in gravitas,” said Mitchell. “Everybody in Chester knows who Victor Floyd is.”
That stems from Floyd’s success on the field - taking the Cyclones to their first state championship game in 44 years -, his acumen in getting kids off to college - nine signed with college football programs in 2007 -, and showing his players that the effort, love and respect they gave him would be reciprocated. For many of Chester kids, it was the first time they’d ever felt that.
“He put Chester on his back,” said former player C.C. Whitlock, “and turned it around with just the game of football.”
Nowhere was loving effort more evident than in recruiting. Floyd’s focus on academics ensured that Chester’s devoted players were eligible for NCAA football and he spared no phone call, no expense, no mile behind the wheel in hunting his kids a place to play at the college level.
“You created a culture where the cool thing was, ‘who are you going to sign with in February?,” said Mitchell.
Floyd and his staff would burn up the road in the offseason, on one occasion renting a van on a Thursday and driving from Chester to take Whitlock to an unofficial visit at the University of Alabama. They spent the night, then hopped back in the van to drive back to Chester on Friday. Saturday morning, the group piled back in the van with seven or eight more Chester kids in tow and drove to a Sunday prospect camp at Mississippi State, “which, by the way, is the same road, you just drive an hour and a half past Alabama,” said Mitchell.
They drove back home to Chester Sunday night with Mitchell realizing, “I passed Talladega Motor Speedway four times in three days.”
The effort that Floyd and his staff showed those kids was fully absorbed, especially in a town where many kids lacked complete family support scaffolding. McCaskill, who Floyd sheltered after his family’s house burned down in 2007, said that if he ever won the lottery he would “bless (Floyd) because he changed my life. He showed me a lot of things.”
As Floyd and his Chester coaches drove all over the southeast, groups of young men would sit in backseats pondering the great beyond.
“It ain’t all just Chester County or Richburg,” said Mitchell. “You try to get those kids to think about going other places. When you start to build that into the culture, it starts to take off.”
The Cyclones went 2-9 in Floyd’s first season at Chester. He told The Herald’s Barry Byers in August of 2005 “Our kids could have quit because things didn't go so well, record-wise. Instead, they hung in and I think it will pay off this year.”
It began to that fall as the Cyclones improved to 6-5 and hosted a playoff game, and it truly did in the years that followed. The 2007 Cyclones came within a missed two-point conversion of a 3A state title.
“I still don’t think it failed,” said Chester’s longtime radio announcer, Carlisle Roddey, chuckling. “I think we made it.”
But Floyd didn’t fail.
The original class of eight ballooned over the four years and nine of them went on to play college football, including McCaskill who might have had an NFL shot had he not torn his ACL. After being named a high school All-American, Whitlock played four years at South Carolina; he also flirted with the NFL.
They saw the wider world. And they came back to Chester in part because of a sense of obligation instilled by Floyd’s treatment of them.
“We wouldn’t have made it this far without him,” said Whitlock, who has been back in town for about a year. “It’s the right thing, you know?”
Ready to help spearhead Floyd’s second Chester renaissance (if he asks them), Whitlock and McCaskill both know what lies ahead for future Cyclone football players. Especially if they don’t handle their grades.
“It’s gonna be a hard transition for them,” said McCaskill. “They’re gonna have to really sit down, ‘is this what I want to do?’”
Nothing worth doing is easy, but Floyd’s track record gives Chester’s community hope that the toil will bear fruit. Again.
“I’ve seen him turn it all the way around before,” said Roddey, “and I don’t have any doubts that he can do it now.”