The phrase “coming home” has been making the rounds in the sports news cycle thanks to the budding feud between NBA basketball stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
James was famous for using the tagline when he penned a letter to Sports Illustrated on July 11, 2014, when he announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after winning two championships with the Miami Heat. “Coming home” evolved into a marketing campaign by Nike, endless internet memes and will probably stick to James so long as he’s living on this earth.
It’s easy to see why the idea of coming home could be so popular. There’s something Americana about its origins — whether it be soldiers returning from WWII or a father welcomed at the front door by his wife and kids after a long days work. For most folks, warm and fuzzy feelings emanate from the idea of coming home — whether it be the actual physical home you live in or the emotional comfort and security in the idea of home.
In sports we’ve seen it on a larger scale with James, but one could make the argument the return of a sports figure to try and resurrect his community has just as much impact on the prep level as it does the professional level. Even if they don’t carry the name cache James does, Jeff Kaiser and Tony Welch are both local boys who’ve returned home to try and make a difference.
The parallels you can draw between the two are hard not to notice. Both are home-grown local talents who had to cut their teeth outside the confines of their respective hometowns of Claxton and Statesboro. For Kaiser, it was ten years as the head coach of Tattnall County — a school which knew no kind of relevant success before Kaiser took them to the playoffs six times.
Welch’s previous tenure lasted only a third the length of Kaiser’s, but in that time at Savannah High School he took a team dead-on-arrival and brought them to a 9-3 record in 2016 — the Blue Jackets first winning season in over 20 years. Though both men are cut from different cloths, they certainly face some of the same challenges in their first year back home.
“The summer went well but we've had our ups and downs with guys we needed to be more active,” Welch said. “Some key kids could only be around for a day in our three-day sleep-away camp, but we still gotta move forward.”
With new coaches come new cultures, which don’t soak into the fabric of a football program overnight — although that’s what Welch tried to do over the summer when he bunked 42 players and all his assistant coaches at Eastside Baptist Church for three days in a row. With the church community taking care of the meals and hospitality, Welch was left to put his boys through three sessions a day of team meetings and drill work.
The main reason Welch stuck the boys together for three days straight was not for the extra practice time but to foster a sense of family within the team. Welch, a 1981 graduate of Claxton High School, knows he doesn’t have the pleasure of taking his time when it comes to building comradery within a group of boys who play a game where teamwork is paramount to success. So if anything, he can try and force it through a “summer camp” style event.
“We’re going to go through tough times this season, so we need to be able to bond together through tough times,” Welch said. “Living together for three days will make you learn to put up with each other, so that’s one of the main reasons we do it.”
Welch was quick to mention how supportive the Claxton community has been to him and his team since he arrived earlier this year. 24 miles north of Welch’s program Kaiser has seen the Statesboro community pitch in for his program in a similar fashion.
“There are a ton of people in this community who have bent over backward for this team in the past couple of months,” Kaiser said. “We have a lot of folks who want to commit to helping us out.”
The Statesboro quarterback club is among that group of supporters Kaiser praises. Though he won’t disclose the specifics, Kaiser has stated the club has gone out of its way to gather resources that will be apparent come kick off Aug. 25 when Statesboro hosts Burke County.
But Kaiser deflected the idea of the community giving back solely because of him. Being a native of Statesboro and a 1991 graduate of the school, he knows the community well and has frequented the area with his family during the holidays when he was coaching at Tattnall County. Kaiser believes even if he wasn’t the head coach, the community would pour their support into the program regardless.
“Some of these folks who’re die hard Blue Devils and love the program are 80 years-old,” Kaiser said. “It always been important to them and it’s important to the guys who played with me who still live around here. Anyone would get this support.”
Welch wouldn’t respond either way in regards to whether or not Claxton is throwing their support behind him simply because he’s a homegrown product as well.
“I don’t know if that’s the reason, but I’m glad it happens,” Welch said.
Both men are facing two different challenges when it comes to their alma maters. For Welch, Claxton hasn’t won a football game since 2015. While the Tigers have never known prolific football success, they’ve had a history of at least being decent — sustaining consecutive winning seasons from 2008 to 2014 and being in the playoffs as recent as 2014.
For Kaiser, his plate is similar in the fact Statesboro’s losing streak is actually longer than Claxton’s (12 games for Claxton, 13 for Statesboro) but the ceiling for what Statesboro could be extends much higher when you look at the history of the program. From 2000 to 2005 no program in the state of Georgia won more football games than Statesboro and in the minds of Blue Devil fans that’s where they hope to be once again.
“When I was at Tattnall they had never seen real sustained success before I got there, but that’s not the case here,” Kaiser said. “Somehow some way we have to get back to what Statesboro used to be.”
They say home is where the heart is. For Kaiser and Welch they've poured their hearts back into these teams going through spring and the summer — hopefully to see their efforts blossom when their team's open play Aug. 25.