Early County head football coach Joel Harvin called it “an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Bobcat senior linebacker Keaviant Wimbush said it was “an amazing experience.”
Senior kicker Alex Warr referred to it as “great” and “a cool deal.”
The three were talking about this past Tuesday’s trip for 26 senior Bobcat football players to the Atlanta Falcons training facility in Flowery Branch, Ga.
The players plus a couple of coaches made the four-and-half hour trip by bus early in the morning for a practice at the facility, located 45 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.
The Bobcats were the only high school team at the closed practice to fans and media as the Falcons prepared for their Thursday night Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.
While at Flowery Branch, the Early County team got to enjoy a long meeting with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn as well as tour the training facility.
They also got to meet the players, including six-time Pro Bowl selection Julio Jones and 2016 NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan, after practice. Many Falcon players signed autographs and took time for photos.
“It was an amazing experience,” Wimbush said in a Dothan Eagle interview on Wednesday, a day after the trip. “We got to meet a lot of great people and experience things that personally I would have never experienced."
“Oh man, it was great,” Warr quickly said when asked of the experience.
The opportunity came about after Harvin asked the Falcons about opportunities his team could have with the pro football team.
Two years ago, Bobcat players got to attend a Falcon game and hold the United States flag and the Falcon logo flag on the field during pregame festivities. They were also given 100 free tickets to that game.
Harvin asked in May about any opportunities for this season. On Friday, he got a call from the organization.
“I got a call Friday, saying we have an opening at training camp if you guys would like to come,” Harvin said. “I said, ‘We will be there. Just tell us when.’”
The only negative, said Harvin, was the Falcons limited the group to 30 people. As a result, it became a senior trip as a reward.
It was a rare opportunity. The Falcons, who have a strong commitment to reaching out to high schools, usually bring in six high school teams during the preseason camp, but they are usually from the metro Atlanta or north Georgia area – not from the far corner of Southwest Georgia four plus hours away.
In addition with a game two days away, the Falcons had the practice closed, allowing Early County to enjoy their experience by themselves.
“It was just us and the Falcons,” Harvin said.
The group left from Blakely for the 236-mile journey early Tuesday morning.
“We left at 4:30 in the morning, which is a hard thing, and we had every player show up at 4:30 ready to go,” Harvin said. “When we got up there, they set us up in our tent with air conditioning and fans. We had all the food we could eat and all the Gatorade we could drink.”
Shortly after arrival, the players were given a tour of the Falcons’ training facility which is located on a 50 acre site. The tour included seeing the locker rooms, weight training areas and cafeteria.
Following the tour, Dimitroff, the general manager, met the group and had a lengthy conversation with the players, including a question-and-answer session.
“He spent about 30 minutes with us,” Harvin said. “He gave us an overview of what they look for when they go cut players or when they draft players. The kids could ask him any question they wanted.”
Quinn joined in for a few minutes before departing to attend to practice, one the Bobcats got a close up view of.
“While they were practicing, we got to stand on the sideline right next to them,” Harvin said. “It was like we were part of the Falcons. We just didn’t have our helmets and pads on.”
As practice drew to a close, the Bobcat players were moved back to their tent area, located near the doors of the facility.
Then came the fun part for the Early County players who were wearing their Bobcat navy and Vegas gold jerseys – the chance to meet and interact with Falcon players as they came over before leaving practice.
“They thought it was pretty cool that we came four and a half hours,” Warr said. “They were saying, ‘You guys have some cool jerseys,’ and that they didn’t have anything like that when they were in high school.”
As the Falcon players interacted, they also signed autographs and took photos with Early County players.
“I pretty much got every person on the team,” Warr said of the autographs.
Warr, who has kicked for three years at Early County, said getting to talk to an NFL kicker was a special experience.
“I am the kicker so I talked with their kicker and punter,” Warr said. “It was a cool deal.”
For others, the best part was meeting Jones, an eight-year veteran wide receiver who is the fastest player to reach 10,000 receiving yards in NFL history.
“The highlight to me was taking a picture with Julio,” Wimbush said.
It ended a day beyond expectations, admitted Wimbush.
“I anticipated just going to watch practice and watch the people go back in after practice,” Wimbush said. “I never expected to meet players or take a tour of the facility and do all the stuff that we did.”
Harvin said it was special to him watching his senior players interact with NFL players.
“We had a good opportunity – it was not like a star-struck, ‘Heck here he is,’” Harvin said. “It was more like a get to know each other. They were sharing stories with each other.
“It meant a lot to our kids. I almost got emotional watching how our kids were about getting the opportunity to meet these guys and seeing they are human. It meant a lot to me.”
Harvin added, “Our kids have talked about it ever since we got on the bus to come back.
“That was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our kids.”