Eleven Chester Cyclones lounged in a side room of the South Carolina High School League’s office Monday, as players and coaches spoke to the media during the football state championship press conference.
Only three of them would sit at the table alongside coach Victor Floyd and answer questions from the media. But all 11, wearing matching denim button-up shirts with a Cyclones logo on the chest, earned the right to make the trip. They’re the remaining group from four years ago when Floyd first returned to Chester from Georgia, something he’s keenly aware of this week as the Cyclones prepare for the Dec. 7 3A state title game against Dillon.
“I’m thrilled for the simple fact that what I told them came true,” Floyd said. “They at least know that coach wasn’t just talking. They actually believed, followed protocol and made it happen.”
The connection between Floyd and his players, those 11 particularly, is obvious. Their desire to win a state championship for their coach, not just themselves, is also obvious.
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“We play everyday because of that man,” said senior Zion Mills. “He gets on us about everything, disciplines us. To win this for him would mean everything. We play for him everyday.”
Floyd led Chester to a state championship appearance in 2007. After the Cyclones’ 14-12 loss to Wilson, Floyd took a lucrative head coaching job in Brunswick, Ga., but before his exit, he told former Herald sports editor Barry Byers that he thought he was leaving three state titles on the table. The Cyclones had plenty of college-level talent returning in 2008 and the years beyond, including a freshman QB named Tony McNeal that would go on to Clemson.
Asked if that thought crossed his mind when he decided to return to Chester in 2015, Floyd didn’t hesitate.
“No doubt. No doubt,” he said.
This is no secret to the Chester players. Floyd speaks about his unfinished business, one of a number of motivational tactics that have propelled the team to a historic 14-0 season. And the team bought into that mission and made it part of its own.
“I know it means a lot to us, but I know it means a lot to Coach too, I know he really wants it,” said senior running back Pha’Leak Brown, one of the team’s three 1,000-yard rushers. “He emphasizes it everyday, our main goal, we want to win a state championship.”
The reasons for the complete buy-in are simple. They love and respect Floyd.
Mills’ connection with Floyd is as deep as you’ll find. The receiver/defensive back, who has five interceptions this season, almost certainly has caused his coach to pop an Excedrin or two for headache relief.
“He did a lot for me because I had been having off the field troubles,” said Mills.
Mills’ father died when he was young and he lashed out as a middle schooler. He had to sit out his ninth grade season at Chester, but he wasn’t banished from the program. Floyd made a contract with Mills that would enable him to rejoin the program if certain expectations were met. Mills met them and he’s been a key part of the team ever since, despite the occasional buck.
“He got me in back where I need to be. Ever since then I respect him a whole lot,” said Mills, who hopes to go to college, whether he plays football or not.
Those kinds of impacts are why Chester athletic director Ricky Campbell didn’t hesitate to reach out to Floyd once the school’s head football coach position came open in late 2014.
“This is what we were hoping for,” said Campbell. “We were lucky to get him back.”
Campbell knew Floyd’s blueprint, knew it would take a few years to get everyone on board with his disciplinarian tactics. He also knew that the players, the football team, the school and town would reap the benefits if and when that happened.
“The demands he places on the kids prepares them for success, either football or in life,” said Campbell. “That’s a big part that people don’t understand with him, he’s trying to prepare these young men for life. And we’re just getting the benefits for Chester High School to play for a state championship.”
The 11 that attended the press conference were central to that effort. Brown, Mills, Montez Hall, Terrence Mills, Gavin Herr, Emmanuel Wright, Dorrien Bagley, Twon Patton, Payton Stillwell, Keith Boyd and Wyatt Tunall. They all survived the gassers, the sprints up the hill in the Cyclones’ stadium, the up-downs in disgusting July heat that enveloped them, that plopped on their shoulder and whispered in their ears to quit.
They persevered through Floyd’s weeding-out process but many of their peers did not. Many couldn’t handle the running, the early hours, or not using their cell phone in school. That infraction alone equals 500 up-downs.
“He’s a different breed if you ask me,” said Brown. “He’s like your father. You love him because of stuff he does for you, then if you mess up he’s gonna discipline you too.”
Now, after a pair of promising nine-win seasons, the Cyclones are fully reaping the benefits. Trips to the barber shop have become interminable for Mills because the whole shop wants to tell him how good Chester football is. But Mills has spent too much time around his football coach, Floyd, who is sometimes ornery but always candid.
“They didn’t want to get me out of the chair. Talking about it all day,” said Mills. “I was just ready to go.”
That’s a good problem to have, though, and Mills knows that. And success and mini-stardom around town aren’t the only benefits. Floyd’s emphasis on academics is bearing fruit, too. The 60 players in the Chester football program (JV and varsity) have a cumulative 3.11 grade point average, while the 11 seniors boast a cumulative 3.5 GPA.
Senior offensive lineman Boyd recently received a scholarship for thousands of dollars from Boys State and is a Beta Club member with a 4.3 GPA. Boyd’s fellow lineman, Tunall, is a Shrine Bowler and Mr. Football finalist, but more importantly has a GPA over 4.0 and has colleges fighting over him (he decommitted from Appalachian State on Thursday morning after the Mountaineers’ coach, Scott Satterfield, left for Louisville. UNC coach Mack Brown is doing an in-home visit with Tunall Thursday night and the Tar Heels are new favorites to land his final signature).
Tunall and Brown both started as freshmen for Floyd four years ago, when they were football babies.
Brown, a standout running back, has grades as strong as his biceps and could end up at any number of colleges across the country, including Rice University in Houston, one of the country’s top science and engineering schools, which has offered him a scholarship.
Boyd, Tunall and Brown are just three examples of the widespread academic success that will change these Cyclones’ futures, and maybe their town’s. Crime, low employment and a lack of higher education have long been civic struggles in Chester, S.C. Floyd would add a chronic lack of vision among Chester’s young people to that list.
“For years, mediocrity or sub-mediocrity has just been so accepted that it becomes kind of the norm and when it’s like that then you don’t even realize all the things that could happen,” he said. “I tell them all of the time, ‘don’t let me out-dream you.’ And I think that’s what happens a lot of times.”
Partly because of football and partly because of a coach that wouldn’t accept anything but the best possible, the lives of dozens of Chester football players could change in the coming years, as they walk across stages and grasp college degrees all over the country, meet life partners and have and raise children, all with the same expectations their coach helped embed in them years earlier.
Because of Floyd, the players aren’t settling for just reaching the state championship game this week. Because of the players, especially those 11 at Monday’s press conference, Floyd will get a chance to wrap up some unfinished business.
Because of Floyd and his team, anyone connected with Chester football will eventually fall asleep Thursday night thinking of state championship glory at Williams-Brice Stadium the following day.
“Sometimes I out-dream them,” Floyd said, “but with this group I didn’t.”