CONYERS -- Robert Reid Memorial Stadium was alive for the first time in years.
From the pregame tunes provided by the marching band, to the Bulldogs student section packing in tightly in anticipation for a big game, for the first time in years, it was cool to attend a football game at Rockdale County.
Rockdale County’s losing ways of the past had, over time, taken the life out of a program. The sometimes lopsided final scores weren’t often seen by the community, or by the student body. The expectation of losing wasn’t something that interested many folks in purchasing a ticket.
In Jamie Baldwin’s first season as Rockdale County’s head coach in 2018, the Bulldogs entered their final game of the season 2-7. With playoff hopes out of the question for the fourth year in a row, the Bulldogs took their home field for the final time against cross-county rival Newton, a team many expected to stomp the Bulldogs for the fifth year in a row.
No one, not even Baldwin knew that after a 35-34 double overtime victory against the Rams, it would be the start of a 5-game winning streak for the Bulldogs, a streak that was reached with a 16-0 shutout of Heritage on Sept. 13.
For the first time in 32 years, the Bulldogs were 4-0 to start a season and were celebrating just outside of their locker room with Baldwin, the man responsible for re-energizing a program that was once out of juice.
“It’s special,” Baldwin said. “I’m very, very humble. As I’ve gotten to this point, I’m very humble because I set out to do some things with this program and so far, with the things that I’ve asked from my players and coaches, they’ve delivered.”
In Rockdale County’s 70 seasons dating back to 1950, only twice had a Bulldogs team reached 4-0 to begin a season. In 1973, the Bulldogs began the season 4-0 with Phil Knight as their head coach and Jesse Baker as their star player, who later went on to play for the Houston Oilers and Dallas Cowboys.
In 2019, the Bulldogs reached the accomplishment with Baldwin at the helm and his senior laden class leading the charge.
For senior wide receiver and cornerback Noah McGlockling, the Bulldogs’ 4-0 start was something he and his fellow senior class had hoped to accomplish one day.
“We used to always talk about this a few years back how we were going to change the program and do something that has never been done before when our class became seniors,” McGlockling said.
For senior offensive lineman Edward Pollard, it was all about trusting the process.
“This is very special for me,” Pollard said. “Knowing the old tradition and how it used to be winning one game or two games, it has hurt. With us starting off 4-0 this year, our future looks really bright.”
Baldwin isn’t the bragging type. With his military background helping shape how he coaches football, getting his players to buy into his vision was something that took some getting used to.
Having never experienced what it felt like to be competitive on a year-to-year basis, things began to click for his players this past offseason.
“He changed our mindset and got us a lot more focused,” McGlockling said of Baldwin. “He required us to work harder for everything. We realized that nothing was going to be given to us.”
In Week 1, the Bulldogs used a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Eagle’s Landing 23-12. In Week 2, the Bulldogs overcame a 7-0 deficit to defeat Alcovy 21-14. In Week 3, the Bulldogs rolled past Discovery 22-14 for their first 3-0 start in five years.
Against the same three teams in 2018, the Bulldogs were 1-2.
With an opportunity to start 4-0, the Bulldogs shut out rival Heritage 16-0 in Week 4 in front of a sold-out crowd. The shutout marked the Bulldogs’ first in 10 years and first against Heritage since 2001.
Even a humble Baldwin took a moment during the game to look up at the crowd inside Reid Memorial Stadium, one he hadn’t quite seen before.
“I did glimpse at one point doing the game,” Baldwin said. “There wasn’t a seat available in the stands. The student section was outstanding. I have to give credit to Dean Poole, our announcer. He does a great job announcing for us and he keeps the crowd engaged.”
Heading into their first two two BYE weeks, Baldwin used that time to take a brief moment and look back on how far they have come in such a short time.
“We did a lot of reflection on where we’ve come from,” Baldwin said. “I reminded my seniors of where we started. The reason we did the reflection part is because I needed them to understand that we’ve gotten here based on doing things the right way.
“I’m excited for the program. I’m excited for the people who have been supporting this program since Day 1. I’m excited for the fans and the student body. I’m thrilled that my seniors get to leave experiencing something that a lot of seniors before them haven’t experienced.”
The Bulldogs’ success on the field in 2019 has been due in large part to their defense, a unit that has allowed only five touchdowns while forcing more than 10 takeaways through their first four games.
Defensive captain Cameron Gray has credited their success on defense to a mixture of experience and maturity.
“Everyone is clicking,” Gray said. “We had a lot of returning players and starters, so with that maturity level and experience, everyone kind of fit in. Everyone knows what to do, where to go and the job that they have to do. I take a lot of pride in that. I believe that defense wins games, so we just have to keep up where we’re doing and try to keep as many points off the board as possible.”
On offense, the Bulldogs have relied heavily on their rushing attack. Junior running back Connor Mack leads the way with more than 300 yards rushing while senior quarterback Chandler Peters has helped keep defenses honest with his arm.
All of their offensive success, however, has begun with their top-tier offensive line. With Pollard, the only senior, snapping balls to Peters alongside juniors Justin Jones, Damian Kassim, Dana Campbell, Christian Anderson, there experience together has proved dividends.
“We all know each other's tendencies and what we’re all capable of,” Pollard said. “We kind of can have fun with each other with certain things. Another thing that I like about this group is that when we’re clicking and we’re going fast, there aren’t many mistakes. That’s why we’ve been having a lot of success running the ball this year.”
The Bulldogs’ remaining six regular season games are daunting. With three Top 10 ranked teams on the schedule in Dacula, Grayson and Archer and their annual end-of-season rivalry game with Newton looming, the road ahead will be challenging for the Bulldogs.
Two wins away from their first winning season since 2013, Baldwin has let his team know that if they want to continue to make history in 2019, their work is far from finished.
“If we continue to do things the right way, other things will happen for us,” Baldwin said. “I’m not predicting the next six games, but as long as we do what Rockdale County High knows how to do, we’re going to be competitive in every game that we play in. I’m excited about what’s going to happen down the road.”