Sowell and Redhawks overcome litany of hardships to win league title

Monroe football coach Johnny Sowell holds a program from his mother’s funeral held in August.

On this night, there was no happy ending for Johnny Sowell, even though his Monroe football team had shown some signs of life late in its season-opening 35-13 loss to Porter Ridge on Aug. 17. The weight on Sowell’s shoulders as he walked off the Redhawks’ field was heavier than just the loss of a game.

Unfortunately, that weight hasn’t gotten much lighter for Sowell. Yet the Redhawks have made their initial disappointment a distant memory and are thriving, winners of seven consecutive games and the Rocky River 1A/2A conference title.

Now, they appear to be a realistic contender for the state’s Class 1AA crown.

And for all those reasons, Sowell wishes his car, which is now regularly parked in game-night position, wasn’t sitting empty on Friday nights.

You see, when Sowell’s mother Sarah’s health started to deteriorate and she could no longer make it into the stadium to watch her son coach her beloved Redhawks, Sowell began parking his sport utility vehicle under the tree next to the athletic buses. There, Sarah had a clear view of the field and a comfortable seat.

But on Aug. 14 – four days before the start of the season — Sarah succumbed to her two-year bout with cancer. She was 74.

Sarah’s death rocked Sowell, the youngest of nine children, and reverberated throughout the community.

“Everyone knew Mrs. Sowell,” said receiver/defensive back Lavonte Baker. “When she died, it was like we lost our own mom. We just wanted to make Coach feel better.”

The late Sarah Sowell inspired the entire Monroe football team.

Since that time, there has been much healing. There also have been more hardships. Sowell’s father, John, is recovering from a stroke and has battled pneumonia this fall, while two of his players have lost grandparents this season.

But the Redhawks also have been reminded that Union County is a pretty tight-knit community.

Before the Redhawks’ game against Central Academy of Technology & Arts on Oct. 19, Cougars coach and Sowell’s longtime friend, Tad Baucom, led his team across the field to Monroe’s sideline to present Sowell with a card signed by the CATA players and coaches.

The card was light blue – Sarah’s favorite color.

Baucom said his players circled the Monroe players, and the coaches spoke to the kids for roughly five minutes about keeping their lives in perspective, reminding them that football only is a part of their experience and everything can be taken away in an instant — the facts of life that are rarely remembered without tragedy.

When he was done, Baucom turned back toward his sideline.

“I thought we’d just get up and leave, but I turned around and the kids were hugging each other,” Baucom said.

That let Sowell know the message wasn’t lost on the teenagers.

“That lets you know that it was bigger than the game,” said Sowell. “You’re talking about people. You’re talking about friendship. You’re talking about life. That’s something extra right there. Every person doesn’t get the opportunity to be a good football player, or just a football player. But we’re all people.”

That’s not to say there isn’t still pain. Sowell said he still finds himself driving to his mother’s home on LaSalle Street, especially after a long day, even though it’s on the other side of Hwy. 74 from where he lives.

“There are little reminders everywhere,” Sowell said. “But they’re good reminders.”

Sowell also said it’s helped to have football and his team, both for the camaraderie and for the escape.

“You get that piece of mind when you’re involved, when you’re busy,” Sowell said. “But every night, it’s going to be there. It’s going to be there every morning.”

As it turned out, the Redhawks certainly needed his attention.

During the summer, Sowell was imagining how an influx of transfers such as Julius Stradford (Cuthbertson), Douglas Carelock (Indian Land, S.C.) and Keenan Rivers (Pageland Central) would infuse his experienced-yet-thin lineup with some much-needed depth. With the reinforcements, Sowell hoped some of his standouts would be able to stay fresh while focusing on just one position.

Instead, the Redhawks suffered a rash of injuries, starting with Jaquez Frazier, whose season ended with a knee injury during a scrimmage against Weddington. Fellow cornerback standout Chris Rice injured his ankle at practice the Tuesday after the Porter Ridge loss, which required a pair of surgeries.

And that was just the beginning. Over the next two weeks, receiver/defensive back Jaylen Barbour, Stradford and linebacker Douglas Blake – all slated to be significant contributors this season – were forced to sit with injuries. In fact, they all missed all or part of the team’s losses to Concord and Marvin Ridge.

Suddenly, a season filled with so much preseason promise was sitting at 1-3.

“It was smiles at the beginning, but then it was like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’” said Sowell.

Safety/tight end Jeremy Hammond said the experienced players focused on encouraging the younger players during that stretch and making sure they developed.

“(The injuries) were pretty rough, but we knew, as a team, that we could get through it,” Hammond said.

As it turned out, the depth Sowell was hoping for was simply delayed and redirected rather than cancelled outright. For one, Stradford and Barbour have returned to the lineup. Stradford is part of the Redhawks backfield rotation while doubling as a linebacker, and Barbour is a trusted member of both the receiving and cornerback units. But perhaps most important has been the unexpected emergence of several players – such as sophomore running back Chase Byrum, defensive and offensive lineman Malik Covington, receiver/defensive back Richard Blakeney and first-year starting center Raul Rodriguez-Hernandez – all of whom have developed into valuable contributors.

Soon the newcomers were earning valuable minutes, and succeeding, as the players settled into their new roles while approaching conference play.

“That gave our guys a lot of confidence,” said running back/defensive back Tre’Shun Wynn. “(The new players) made plays, and more people showed what they could do.”

The Redhawks regrouped to nearly beat Class 3A Marvin Ridge in Week 4. The following week, Monroe began Rocky River 1A/2A conference play with a 28-20 win over Piedmont after trailing by a point at halftime.

“That was when I started seeing it,” Sowell said. “That was a good sign.”

Now, a month and a half after the Piedmont win, the Redhawks have won seven consecutive games, with the most recent being a 28-23 win over archrival Forest Hills, giving Sowell’s club a perfect 7-0 league mark and a conference title.

But more than anything, Sowell said he’s proud of the way his players have kept their heads up. He’s proud of the way so many of them sacrificed playing positions they were comfortable with to fill in elsewhere, simply for the good of the team.

He’s proud of the way his players have filled in as family when others have needed it, including himself.

“This is a team that never quits. We talk about being a family, we talk about loving your teammates,” said Sowell. “We’ve got to keep believing in that. When you’re down, it’s not over until it’s over. I think they’re going to continue to believe that.”

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