Coweta’s NFL links come full circle

by Chris Goltermann

NFL 35 years later, county’s ‘pipeline to the pros’ connects again with a Rams rookie player out of Newnan By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
A constant link between Coweta County and the National Football League over the last 35 years is now back where it started. Namely in the hands of a Rams rookie out of Newnan High School. Today, Alec Ogletree follows in a steady stream of talented high school players to have reached the pinnacle of a football career when the rookie first-round draft pick lines up at linebacker for St. Louis in the Edward Jones Dome against the Arizona Cardinals for a 4:05 p.m. kickoff. The landscape of the league has changed drastically since the late Drew Hill stepped foot on an NFL field with the Rams as a rookie in 1979. Back then, the Cardinals were in St. Louis and the Rams made their home in Los Angeles. Hill was also taken in the 12th round with an untelevised phone call well before the NFL Draft became a three-day circus covering every pick among just seven. In all but six years between the debuts of Hill and Ogletree, Coweta County’s place in the league has remained secure by at least one representative, and at others by multiple. If not for a hamstring injury, Ogletree’s former high school teammate Alan Bonner — a sixth-round pick of the Houston Texans — would immediately be joining a list of at least 11 athletes since 1979 that have now seen dreams of making NFL rosters come to a reality. Bonner’s injury will keep him injured reserve to start the 2013 season. But the wide receiver out of Jacksonville State has already made an equally strong impression on the Houston staff. This year is as much a changing of the guard among that group. For the first time since 1998, Keith Brooking will be missing from the sidelines. Ogletree became the second local player since the former East Coweta star to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, with as much hype and anticipation for success as Brooking did as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons in 1998. Brooking, a month away from his 38th birthday, remains an unsigned free agent after contributing as a starter with the Denver Broncos during a 13-3 season that ended with a double-overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. At least three of the 11 pros to come out of Coweta County — Hill, Brooking and Chris Hanson — had careers lasting at least nine full seasons. As for Ogletree, “I’m just taking it one day at a time,” he said this week. “We have a couple more days of practice and then we’ll be ready for the game. I’m just taking it one day at a time.” The former Cougars safety has followed a path to stardom that almost seemed guaranteed from the attention he received in high school. A playoff victory against Grayson that featured a one-handed touchdown catch and a block of a potential game-winning field goal in the closing seconds all but sealed that path, first to greatness with the Georgia Bulldogs and beyond. Much of the preseason has been hit and miss for Ogletree, who at times has looked like a first-year pro adjusting to the speed of the game, and at others, has been as ferocious a defender as he was here in Newnan and then between the hedges in Athens. “Given that it was a new scheme for me, I’m definitely taking a little bit more time than some of the other guys to pick up on it,” Ogletree said. “I work hard each and every day to get the scheme. Right now I feel pretty good about the scheme and what we need to do.” Despite struggling a bit in his first professional game against the Browns, Ogletree made up with it with a pair of SportsCenter-worthy plays against Denver. They included his first touchdown on a play where he stripped running back Ronnie Hillman, scooped up the loose ball and scored. Along with the touchdown and half-dozen tackles was a one-handed interception of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on a leaping grab not unlike the one he made as a Newnan receiver in the win over Grayson back in 2009. It was enough to both surprise and impress the future Hall of Famer. “"That guy made a pretty athletic play,” Manning told the Associated Press afterwards of Ogletree. “That guy's got long arms, obviously got a pretty wide wingspan. I was surprised he was able to get his hands on the ball." The learning curve, however, will reach its peak today with the linebacker facing regulars for a full game as a three-down starter. The expectations have heightened further on the 30th overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft following the release of veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who had been suspended by the league due to a substance-abuse violation. “We’re all depending on each other and on him, and he knows he can’t play like a rookie,” veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan told the AP. “He’s got to go in there and play good ball like he did in Denver, and let that carry over and we’ll be alright.” On the field, however, is where Ogletree may feel the most comfortable. Showcasing a more reserve personality than twin brother Zander during his days at Newnan High, he was a starter with the Cougars defense by the time he was a sophomore and immediately contributed as a true freshman at Georgia, working his way into a starting cornerback position by the midpoint of his first college season. Said Ogletree, "We're ready to roll.” LIST OF PLAYERS IN PRO FOOTBALL FROM COWETA SINCE 1979 Player Position High School Years Played Drew Hill WR Newnan 1979-1993 Michael Cheever C Newnan 1996-1998 Keith Brooking LB East Coweta 1998-2012 Karsten Bailey WR East Coweta 1999-2003 Corey Bridges WR Newnan 1999-2001 Chris Hanson P East Coweta 1999-2010 Vernon Strickland LB Newnan 2000-2002 John Keith LB East Coweta 2000-2003 Chris Young DB East Coweta 2003-2007 Alec Ogletree LB Newnan 2013- Alan Bonner WR Newnan 2013-

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