As it goes in every story of consequence, there is a protagonist that moves a plot forward, facing conflict while winding through the highs and lows as the tale unfurls. This is no different in the story of Franklin Heights football, a team often forgotten about in a city filled with a rich tradition of high school football. The protagonist could be hard to identify when learning of the Golden Falcons’ incredible season, capped off by the first playoff win in school history. It could be the quarterback that led the Falcons’ offense to a historic season in 2016. It could be one of the electrifying wide receivers that pushed the offensive attack forward. Or, it could also be the running back who bullied his way to Player of the Year honors.
However, the Hollywood staple when making a movie about a football team is undoubtedly the coach at the center of a group of young men. Maybe that’s the safe pick when betting on the main character of this west side story, but quite frankly, it’s hard to ignore the presence of Coach Tennyson Varney in his third year at Franklin Heights.
The former Hamilton Township offensive coordinator is far from Hollywood glamour in his get-it-done attitude but is the catalyst for the turnaround of a program that was once a doormat for opposing teams. The antagonists that oppose Varney’s fearless leadership are many, and much easier to identify. On a small scale, the opponents on Friday nights stand up to the task, only able to affect wins and losses. But in the larger scope, Varney battles the culture of Franklin Heights itself — a neighborhood riddled with poverty, hallways filled with students that are reluctant to don a football jersey, and gunshots that forced the staff to reevaluate practice times.
ACT I: A Fresh Start
In 2014, Varney learned of head coaching vacancies in three out of the four Southwestern City Schools. Being a teacher at Central Crossing made it an easy decision to take an opportunity to be interviewed for a possible position. In the interview, he sat in front representatives from Westland, Grove City, and Franklin Heights. A few weeks after the meeting, his phone rang with good news; Franklin Heights had offered him the job. When he received the call, he was in disbelief. Not because he didn’t believe he was good enough to be offered a head coaching job, but because his dream of being a head coach had come true.
“It took a lot of soul searching to take a job that big for the first time,” Varney says. “I did a lot of praying and a lot of advice seeking from old coaches. It came down to being scared to fail because if you’re scared to fail, you can’t do it.”
When Varney walked into Franklin Heights for the first time in 2014, he was greeted with a slim roster and something even more unsettling to him; complacency. After four years as the offensive coordinator at Hamilton Township, Varney was used to a culture of hard work and no excuses, where the school and community were supportive on Friday nights, and a booster club that assisted in many facets of the program. His wife Maria, a 2002 alum of Franklin Heights, understood the community and its complexities. Varney’s acceptance of the job was in no small measure due to her prior knowledge of the area.
“My wife has such good memories from the school,” Varney shares. “I knew there were good kids there, and I knew that they deserved a chance just like everyone else. That’s why I went there. I was naive at the time, then I realized I couldn’t save the world by myself.”
The high school, which completed the construction of a new building in August 2016, rests in an area of Columbus known as the Greater Hilltop neighborhood. This area, surrounded on the west by the 270 outerbelt and on the north by Interstate 70, is the backdrop to some of the most eye-opening statistics in Columbus. When delved into, the numbers reveal that the smaller, more specific sector of Hilltop where Franklin Heights is located, has a childhood poverty rate of 74.6%, which is higher than 99.1% of the United States. The rate of childhood poverty can be attributed to the low-income status of many households within the area, settling at a rate that is lower in income than 94% of neighborhoods in the nation.
“Many of the kids have never owned a football t-shirt,” Varney explains. “The support and financial situation at the school hasn’t been in a place where my kids have been able to proudly wear a Franklin Heights football shirt. Think about that for a second.”
It doesn’t take long for the mind to focus on the true definition of poverty to fully grasp the implications of its meaning. The national poverty threshold differs depending on the size of family and is based on having an income to support food, clothing, and shelter. Of those three, food was a situation that Varney and his coaching staff soon found out they would have to tackle.
In the heat of the summer months, when temperatures regularly reach 90 degrees, having the adequate amount of nutrition in the body is imperative for an athlete to perform well, or even perform at all. Some of their players would arrive in the morning for two-a-days without having had anything to eat for breakfast, or even suffering from a lack of dinner from the prior evening. Upon realizing this, Varney and his army of coaches made arrangements to have food for their athletes. Hot dogs, chicken tacos and smaller snacks such as granola bars found their way onto the menu.
“The thing is, they don’t know that they haven’t eaten enough for practice because that’s normal to them,” Varney says. “We just always made sure that we had some kind of food on hand.”
Having equipment to practice in was even a stretch in the beginning of Varney’s early career at Franklin Heights. One night, on a whim, Varney applied for a grant from Good Sports. To his surprise, the Massachusetts company that has supplied over $18 million to more than 3,000 sporting programs across the United States, accepted his applications. The team was awarded practice jerseys, practice pants, and girdles for the pads.
In his first year as a head coach, it became clear to Varney that he would be putting in countless hours to not only improve the football program but the quality of lives that his kids would lead. Along with a deficiency in nutrition and a slim assortment of equipment, the coaching staff battled transportation issues. One of the first adjustments they had to make was changing the times of practice because some of the players didn’t have rides.
Time wasn’t a factor for Varney, he was in it for the long haul.
Act II: Finding Solutions
“If you take care of what you can control, everything else will fall into place,” Varney says, as he recites a lesson that his father once taught him.
Fortunately for Varney, his coaching staff is comprised of individuals that have the same mentality when it comes to hard work; nothing gets in the way of success. On his staff resides two ex-NFL players in Jamar Martin and Alex Daniels. During their coaching careers at Franklin Heights, both Martin and Daniels have used their experience to teach the kids about the correlation between hard work and success.
However, the two differ in many ways. Martin is an ex-Buckeye that came back to Columbus after falling in love with the city during his collegiate days of playing football under John Cooper. After his college career, Martin donned the NFL jerseys of the Cowboys, Dolphins, Saints, and Jets before he retired. Now, Martin teaches English and Social Studies at Westland High School, just a short, four-mile drive from where he serves as the defensive coordinator for the Falcons.
Daniels, the more rambunctious of the two, could be found roaming the sidelines, barking out commands to the defensive line this year, or standing in the middle of all the players before a game, delivering an emphatic speech that seemed like it was destined to be on the big screen. Daniels grew up in Columbus where he played football at Marion Franklin until his senior year when he transferred and played for the Brookhaven Bearcats. After playing at the University of Minnesota and the University of Cincinnati, Daniels bounced around in the NFL with short stints on the Raiders, Cowboys, and Saints before he ultimately found himself on Varney’s coaching staff. Daniels quickly saw beyond the newly-constructed Franklin Heights classrooms, finding aspects that related to his own past.
“When I first came to Franklin Heights, I saw this new school and I thought it was a great place to be, like a Dublin or Hilliard,” Daniels says. “I’m from the inner city, I wasn’t used to that. When I started hanging around the kids, I realized that there’s a whole different side to this community than just the nice school building. It was actually exciting that I could relate to these kids and teach them other aspects of life besides football.”
When it came down to teaching, a big goal for the staff was to help the players understand that being a good athlete wasn’t the main goal in life. Of course, showing progress on the field was important, but an added emphasis was needed to teach them a bigger lesson. After the sixth week of this past season, 11 of the team’s key players would have been ruled academically ineligible for the playoffs if a new study table policy hadn’t been implemented. In fact, the team spent more time at study tables than at practice in the final two weeks of the season, a testament to the coaches and faculty’s commitment to their team as more than just jerseys on the field, but as well-rounded individuals.
“By week 10, we had everyone eligible,” Daniels says proudly. “We had kids that never had GPAs over a 2.5 show up with a 3.0 or higher. My main thing is, we need to continue this after the season. When they want to go to college, they’ll have plenty of knowledge so we can have conversations about other things, not just football.”
One of the most recent players to come through the program and on into college is Seth Dawkins, a true freshman at the University of Louisville. Varney insists the recruiting of Dawkins was a beacon of hope for other players in his program, letting them know they too can be recruited to play major Division I football. In his junior year with the Falcons, Dawkins was called upon to be a playmaker from the quarterback position — a solution that was needed after an injury to the starting quarterback. His year at quarterback almost didn’t happen due to the possibility of transferring out of a failing program, but that didn’t stop his recruitment from taking off. Dawkins put his trust in Coach Varney and eventually reaped the benefits in the form of phone calls, letters and visits from coaching staffs all over the country.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do until they starting coming in to visit me,” Dawkins says on a phone call from his freshman dorm room. “I talked to him [Coach Varney] about different programs and coaches. He taught me to find out who is trying to sell you a program and who actually cares about you.”
The hard work that was taught on the field carried over into Dawkins’ personal life. After practice ended during the week, he would take post at his job as a cashier at Walgreens from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m., sometimes four days out of the week. For Dawkins, the job represented responsibility and the freedom to have his own money. But for some students at Franklin Heights, reality presents a choice — it’s either a job or football.
“We have kids that walk the hallways at Franklin Heights that should be playing football, but they can’t because they need to go get a job to help their family out,” Daniels says. “That dynamic at Franklin Heights is so unique, and it took a great staff like we have to put everything together to be able to adjust to our kids.”
Daniels alludes to the fact that the melting pot hallways of Franklin Heights can be a prime recruiting ground for the coaches, but they must be convincing. Below-average play throughout the past decade has latched a stigma onto the program, something that Varney started changing in his latest season, but will undoubtedly still have to conquer going forward.
“Franklin Heights has a lot of adversity and people with different backgrounds,” Dawkins confirms. “It sounds cliché, and I know there are other schools that have money issues, but there were really kids on our team that struggled and came from nothing. Parents on section 8 housing, some only had one parent in their life, it sounds typical. But that’s how some kids really live in Franklin Heights. Being able to overcome that and succeed this year, it completely turned the community upside down.”
The community change that Dawkins talks about was clearly seen through Thursday night meals. Unlike most schools, Varney and his coaching staff pulled together their own money to make sure the kids were properly fueled, sometimes having the beloved chicken tacos put together at the last minute. Parents even chipped in as well. By the end of the season, a handful of groups contributed meals to the team. The Franklin Township Fire Department, along with a Facebook group called “Feed the Falcons”, spearheaded by Mary Mulvany, provided food on multiple occasions, which became a routine for the team to bond and relax after a long week of practices.
Act III: The Main Stage
In his second season, the team improved from a 1-9 record to go 4-6, showing that the culture of complacency was beginning to change. Ultimately, due to mix-ups with grades and transfer rules, the Falcons had to forfeit their wins against Harvest Prep, Briggs and Mount Vernon High School, bringing their record to 1-9 officially. Lost among the wins and losses is the fact that the team had nowhere to work out the summer prior to the 2015-2016 campaign because of the school’s construction. During the summer, the team was confined to lifting in a storage shed, combined with running sprints and performing other exercises in a parking lot.
“It was one of the craziest things that I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” Varney explains. “At that point in time, there was no other option. People told me not to have these kids lift, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. It made us tough as nails though because when you spend three months doing push-ups in the gravel and on the blacktop, it changes the way you approach your daily duties.”
Regardless, records can only improve so much because of coaching; at some point, the players must play. If the first two seasons under Varney were dress rehearsals, his latest was the live event. In the third year, Varney and the Falcons took their play to new levels at both their home field and all over the city.
As he stood and watched from the sidelines during the team’s final game of the regular season, the players on the field took history into their own hands. The team had clinched a playoff berth for only the second time in the program’s history; the first appearance came in 1989, long before any player on his roster had been born. In week 11, their first-round playoff opponent was Licking Heights, another local program who they handled soundly. After a week 12 loss to Massillon Perry, the Falcons concluded their stellar season with a 10-2 record and nothing to hang their heads about.
Under the command of Dylan Akers, the 6-foot-1-inch senior quarterback for the Golden Falcons, the offense was one of the most dangerous threats in the city, averaging 36 points per game. Rick Vaughn, the offensive coordinator from the Falcons, had complete faith in Akers to make any play that was needed. Akers, the perfect mixture of fire and ice, was nearly perfect from the pocket all year. With 32 touchdown passes to only five interceptions, Akers racked up 2,797 yards through the air, while adding another 516 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, en route to being named the first team All-OCC and second team All-District.
Akers was one of the original seven athletes that had been on board from the beginning of Varney’s tenure at Franklin Heights. The dual-threat of Akers was only further exemplified by the emergence of his top targets, James Morgan and Adjrain Settler. The former of the two wideouts hauled in 76 receptions that produced 13 touchdowns and 1,336 yards. Morgan was the possession receiver, always getting open when the Falcons needed a crucial catch. Settler, the do-it-all transfer from Westland High School, made jaws drop all season long with his jukes, spins, and cuts that knifed through the defenses he faced. Settler ended the season with 26 touchdowns and 1,922 total yards of offense. Settler found the end zone in multiple ways, including punt returns, kick returns, passing and rushing plays aplenty. Both playmakers were awarded first-team All-OCC and first-team All-District selections.
“I trust them with anything,” Akers says. “I know that whatever route they run, they trust me to get it to them, and I trust them all to make the plays.”
All of that comes before even mentioning Brenden Knox, the Falcons’ workhorse who is not to be forgotten. In fact, the standout running back for the Falcons was the anchor all season long. His tough running, but well-spoken demeanor seems to be a metaphor for the culture that Varney has created. On his way to 1,293 yards and 15 touchdowns, along with first-team selections to the All-OCC and All-District teams, Knox was hardly ever brought to the ground by the first body to touch him — an aspect of his game that eventually led him to be named Player of the Year in the OCC Capital division.
Throughout the season, Knox kept in touch with Dawkins — as they have their whole lives — and absorbed advice about the collegiate level as he prepares to head to Eastern Michigan University to play running back next fall. His patience and ability to observe the defense when trying to find a running lane undoubtedly led to his noticeable observations throughout the season.
“We had bigger crowds at our games this year,” Knox says. “When you’re winning games, especially the way we were, the community really rallies around you. The playoff run was exciting because it finally gave the community something to be proud of.”
Along with playing offense, all three skill players also contributed on the defensive end. However, when they were on the other side of the ball, Darren Gammel Jr. was the clear leader. After playing wherever the coaches needed him throughout most of his career, the senior settled in as a key anchor in the linebacking core for the Falcons, where he was awarded second team All-OCC. Before the games, Gammel Jr. could be seen strutting the sidelines with a sledge hammer over his shoulder, an intimidation factor and a symbol for the barriers that the team had broken down.
“We became closer this year than we were last year,” Gammel explains. “This year, we were a family. A lot of coaches will tell you that they care about you, but you can hear it in the voices of our coaches. They truly mean it when they say it. I think that’s why we succeeded so much this year.”
Coach Varney understands, as does everyone else involved with the program, that their success this year was a culmination of big and little steps along the way. If asked, Varney will tell the story of one of his first evening practices with the team, three years ago. Less than a football field away, midway through their weekly preparation, gunshots rang out at an apartment complex, unfortunately finding their way into the chest of a victim. The ringing of gunfire was a wakeup call to Varney, a harrowing welcome from his current situation — this was real life.
“There’s no one that can come to Franklin Heights and talk to our kids and not respect them for who they are,” Varney says. “You can say anything you want about the school or the area that they come from, but you have to look at each one of them individually in the eyes and respect them.”
The kids will sing the praise of Varney and his coaching staff, especially when they look back on their unlikely playoff run. But long after that choir fades out and the curtain is called, Coach Varney himself realizes that he was the one learning from them all along. The main character of this story was never a character at all, just a director letting the real stars shine bright.