Coweta's pipeline to the pros continues
by Chris Goltermann
Keith Brooking once joked that he thought “it’s something in the water.”
Either way, Coweta County’s “Pipeline to the Pros” continues to flow like a mighty river to the National Football League.
Yes, much of the spotlight in this week’s NFL Draft will be on Newnan’s Alec Ogletree for obvious reasons. The last time an athlete this close to home shared such a spotlight was in 1998, when Brooking was selected with the No. 12 pick by the Atlanta Falcons.
But even before Ogletree reached the University of Georgia, the veteran NFL linebacker had a strong feeling that a trend that has now seen at least 10 athletes from Coweta become pros since 1979 would continue into the near future.
“Absolutely, knowing the talent Newnan has right now,” Brooking told The Newnan Times-Herald in 2008.
The ‘talent’ that year included not only Ogletree, but All-State wide receiver/kick returner Alan Bonner, who also could hear his name called either at this year’s NFL Draft either today or Saturday following a stellar career at Jacksonville State.
Bonner, who will be featured in a story in Saturday’s Newnan Times-Herald, spent most of the last four months training in Florida while getting a chance to talk to former pros like Hall of Famer Cris Carter.
“I’ve learned you have to be dedicated to the game,” Bonner said this week.
This county has seen its share of star athletes, especially in football. But odds are that most of the ones that reach the highest level won’t get the chance to be selected in the first round. Especially since less than 10-percent of all eligible players in college are drafted.
The majority who have succeeded have earned their way after being given a chance late in the draft or as undrafted free agents.
None has been a finer example than the late Drew Hill, who was picked by the Los Angeles Rams in 1979 in the 12th round of a draft that currently goes no longer than seven trips through. Hill played the next 14 seasons in the league for three teams including the Falcons.
Coweta has been represented in the NFL by at least one player ever since Hill’s selection in 1979. And between three eligible players this year — Ogletree, Bonner and former Heritage School standout lineman Kyle Wilborn — and the next crop of stars either currently playing, or heading out to play in college, the trend doesn’t look to end anytime soon.
In February, six high school seniors signed with Division I programs including Ogletree’s eventual successor at Newnan, safety Tray Matthews, also now at Georgia. Former Cougar lineman Ray Beno enters his senior year at Georgia Tech in the fall.
Northgate, meanwhile, may not have to wait long to have its first alum to reach the NFL, sending three to Division I programs this year.
It’s not just about getting there, however.
Current Trinity Christian head football coach Chris Hanson — one of five players from East Coweta to play professional football — told us during his 11-year career as an undrafted punter in the NFL that every day in the league is another test of survival.
“You’ve still got to go out there and prove yourself every day,” said Hanson, who was cut three times and played briefly in NFL Europe before becoming an All-Pro with the Jacksonville Jaguars and later becoming the third Coweta player after Hill and Brooking to play in a Super Bowl.
Hanson’s former Indians teammate Karsten Bailey played four years of professional football both in the NFL and the Canadian League as a receiver following a standout career at Auburn.
“It didn’t come easy for me,” Bailey told the Times-Herald of his career. “It got later on in life once I got to the pros and found out how hard it was and what kind of business it was.”
Just getting to the NFL, though, is a triumph to be celebrated with equal amounts of fanfare, whether it be Ogletree on Thursday or Newnan High alum Vernon Strickland.
Strickland, who overcame leukemia, went on to walk on at Georgia Tech and then the NFL without hearing his name called during the draft, playing in the league from 2000-02.
“When you go from college to pro or high school to college, the first time they can’t go out there and dominate, that’s the test,” said Strickland. “And the way to respond to that is the key.”
Now it’s Alec Ogletree’s turn.