COVINGTON — The Newton auditorium was at near capacity Wednesday morning to celebrate the 11 Ram football players signing to play at the next level.
Two Rams, wide receiver Robert Lewis and safety Josh Hardeman, signed their National Letters of Intent to Division 1 FBS programs. Lewis signed with nearby Georgia State while Hardeman signed with Marshall University.
Hardeman said it was a special day for him and his family.
“It’s great because I’ve been working for the past four years to get to this point,” Hardeman said. “I finally made it. First, I was nervous. I just took a big breath. I’m going to miss my coaches and all of the love. I want to make it to the NFL. That’s what my dream is.”
A pair of defensive standouts — Tyon Bigby, the Citizen’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Ronald Graves — both signed to South Carolina State, a Division 1 FCS program based out of the MEAC.
Newton standout wide receiver, defensive back Diondre Glover signed on the dotted line to Division II local Albany State, a member of the SIAC conference. He will now become rivals with Newton teammate Greg Lewis, who signed to Clark Atlanta.
For Lewis, deciding on Clark Atlanta was deeper than his passion for football, Newton head coach Camiel Grant said.
“He wants to major in Communications and Clark Atlanta has one of the best Mass Communications programs,” Grant said. “Being in Atlanta, he felt like the networking opportunities that would be there for him once he graduates would be huge. It was refreshing to hear him talking about other things other than football that helped him make that decision.”
Four Rams plan to take their talents to Gordon State College, a school set to compete in football for the first time in 2020. Quarterback Neal Howard signed with the first-year program, as did Keaton Hambright, Josh Hightower and Micah Archibald.
Howard said having three teammates with him should help with the transition to the next level.
“It’s going to be exciting because I grew up with them,” Howard said. “We’re going to room together and go do our thing. I’m looking forward to being around new people and playing with new people.”
Grant said it was great to see Gordon State swoop in and nab four of his guys in the weeks leading up to signing day.
“They came in here and grabbed four of our guys and I’m thankful for that,” Grant said. “I’m thankful that Gordon State was able to find us. It’s a new program, so a lot of our kids will have a great opportunity to play right away. It’s an affordable education for them, which for me as a parent, that’s huge.”
Linebacker Javari Smith rounded out the Newton signees Wednesday morning with his decision to sign with Independence Community College. The school was recently featured on the popular Netflix series, “Last Chance U” and was the home for former Newton standout Dre Butler.
Wednesday afternoon, Butler returned to his alma mater to sign with Auburn after spending this past season playing for Independence. Butler entered signing day ranked as the No. 1 junior college defensive end in the country and chose Auburn over the likes of Oklahoma and many more.
Sitting back and watching all 11 of his players sign Wednesday, Grant said it was a special and rewarding day for many reasons.
“I think what gets lost in all of this is that these kids are getting a chance to further their education,” Grant said. “As football coaches and as football fans, the sport is always at the forefront. But at the end of the day, they’re going to get a great education and they’re going to meet lifelong friends in and outside of the sport. Many of these young men will probably meet their future wives. It’s really the first step moving into manhood, so it’s exciting for me on that level.”
Grant also thanked his coaching staff for their part in getting the players signed.
“It’s a lot of fun and a lot of work,” Grant said. “I have to give coach (Josh) Skelton a tremendous amount of respect. A lot of due goes to him because he does a lot of the ground work that helps us get to this day. Coach (Spencer) Fortson put together this presentation allowing the kids to express themselves in a little bit of a different way.
“I’m blessed to have guys like that and all of the coaching staff that worked hard to get to this point. Anytime you put in a lot of work in anything, you want to see the end result.”