By Thomas Sellers Jr.
For the first time since The Millington Star started doing the Gridiron Glory special football section, a pair of Millington Trojans were featured on the cover.
Entering the 2007 season, it was hard to narrow the ‘cover boy’ down to one person. Candidates entering that campaign for the destination were senior players like Travis Simpson, Eric Knowlton, Darren “Bear” Maclin, Melvin Johnson, Melvin Kneeland, Nate Sorensen, Michael Somerville, Josh Bynum, Terrance Wilmer, Mario Justice, Montez Swift and Korian Chambers.
But all the Millington seniors met during Media Day and selected their captains Randon “Baby Bruh” Fryerson and Derenik Culbreath. Fryerson was the unquestionable leader of the offense as the quarterback operating the Wing-T.
And on the other side of the ball, the linebacker/strong safety who earned the title of captain during his junior season with determined and inspired play was Culbreath.
The duo handled the interview portion that day claiming the 2007 Millington Trojan team will be the best ever. Fryerson and Culbreath posed for their cover shot and reiterated, “We’re serious. We’re going to do something real special this year. This team is going to State.”
When the 2007 season came to an end the Trojans were one-point shy of reaching Murfreesboro. Despite the heartbreaking 28-27 defeat to the Independence Eagles that November night, the 2007 Trojans finished 13-1 and earned the title of ‘Best Ever.’
It has been 10 years since that group of talented Trojans have taken the field. Such players as Eddie Robinson, Stanton Brown, Kevin Oliver, Rowdy Legg, Tyrell Garner, Justin Faulk, Josh Halliburton, Michael Clements, Allen Waits, Otis Threlkeld, Blake Evans, Carl Payne, Al Carradine, Demetre Jones and future Mr. Football Tausean Holmes lined up for Millington in 2007.
Then Head Coach Hank Hawkins was blessed with a Who’s Who lineup. The coaching staff including Bailey Waits, Martin Wieckowski, Mark Neal, Mark Fisher and former University of Memphis standout Jerry Knowlton had the task of guiding and managing the talent and personalities.
“Going into the season, the coaching staff knew we had a talented team,” Hawkins recalled. “But as always you had to wonder how would the leadership be? How hard would they be willing to work? The same questions you have for every season. But we had been working toward having something special. The plan had been set. Now could it be executed?”
Fryerson said behind the scenes the coaches had nothing to worry about because the seniors had the entire team focused.
“Real expectations going into the season were State or bust,” he said. “We had been together since the seventh grade. We knew it was the year.”
Several of the Trojan upperclassmen played as seventh and eighth graders for the Millington Metro. Some even took the field together as youth players in Northaven under the late Ricky Jefferson. Then a few graduated to play SYS for Ray Wilmer and crew.
“My expectations as captain was to win it all,” Culbreath acknowledged. “We were very confident in the work we put in since the seventh grade and was ready for it to pay off.”
With their minds locked in, it was time for the Trojans to get their bodies ready for the marathon of 10 games. Only one previous Millington Football team was able to navigate a regular season unbeaten — the 1994 squad.
“Honestly we seen every team on our schedule and knew all those teams have been beating by us except Ridgeway,” Culbreath said. “Once that monkey got off our back, we knew we had a chance to go undefeated.”
Fryerson acknowledged a few of the players in the locker room saw a path toward perfection.
“We knew we could finish unbeaten before the season started because we knew what we had with the senior class and the underclassmen in summer camp again,” he said. “This had been brewing since middle school with the seniors and juniors on our team — we were a family.”
Once again Hawkins and staff had to see the big picture by reminding the players it was one puzzle piece at a time.
“Each game, the pressure kind of mounted as more and more people talked about it,” he recalled. “We just tried to stay focused on the very next play, next game and let it all take care of itself.”
Hawkins doubts of any lack of focus started to disappear quickly with a 3-0 start with Millington outscoring Munford, Arlington and Craigmont 109-0.
On Sept. 21 the Trojans traveled to Memphis Central improving to 4-0 with a 41-14 victory. Next up was a major test at Collierville.
“Personally the first Collierville game gave me a lot of satisfaction,” Hawkins said. “It was the first time we had to face adversity against a good team away from home and the team really responded. The team showed it could win a tough game in a hostile environment.”
The Trojans prevailed 26-14 over the Dragons. Winning that tough road contest foreshadowed things to come in late October.
Millington dispatched its next opponent Bartlett 26-7 behind the running of Knowlton. Next up was a little revenge against the Ridgeway Roadrunners.
The previous two seasons the Roadrunners had been a thorn in the side of the Trojans ending their 2005 season in Halle Stadium in blowout fashion. In 2006 Culbreath played his heart out just to have the Trojans come up short 10-7.
Ridgeway stood on the turf of Mooney Boswell Field again for the 2007 rematch. From Justice’s big plays on special team to Culbreath and crew dominating the entire game, Millington registered its fourth shutout of the season 35-0.
The 7-0 Trojans traveled to Memphis next beating Overton 43-6. Now with eight games in the rearview mirror, it was time for the showdown against the Bolton Wildcats for the Region 7-5A championship.
Along with the Trojans, rain and wet conditions came to Arlington that Oct. 26 night.
“Best game from the regular season for me personally was Bolton because we won the Region,” Fryerson said. “And we had good friend on the Bolton squad that we were talking trash to all season and in competition with. Even though it was raining and a sloppy field we felt they got off lucky.”
The Trojans prevailed 21-14 that night in large part to a tackle by place kicker Matt Baltensperger on a kickoff return stopping Bolton at the 50-yard line with the game deadlock at 14-14.
“Our best regular season game was vs. Bolton,” Culbreath said. “That game showed grit, determination, grind and all the work we put in that year. That game tested our hearts, our willingness to win at all cost. Also it tested every phase of adversity, the rain offense wasn’t playing well or defense but we got it done.”
To close out the regular season Millington earned its fifth shutout of the season beating Cordova 40-0. Now the 2007 Trojans stood beside the 1994 squad.
“I was very happy we were Region champs,” Fryerson said. “I saw the hard work and dedication paying off. But honestly we were ready for the playoffs so we could get to White Station.”
Hawkins joined Millington coaching legend Tommy Harrison as leaders of unbeaten Trojan teams with the Cordova win.
“I was glad it (regular season) was over and it was time to focus on the playoffs,” he acknowledged. “Didn’t think about it that night much. The 1994 team was great as well. First time ever in playoffs so that had a different feeling. 2007 was kind of old hat as far as playoffs but also very satisfying to see the hard work payoff for the players.”
Although November football had become a tradition around Millington by 2007, no Trojan team had advanced past the Second Round.
In order to do that, the 2007 team had to win at least two games. Up first was a rematch with the Dragons. This time it wasn’t a contest with Millington dominating from start to bone-crunching finish 31-0.
The highlight of the game was the ‘Hit Heard Around Millington’ delivered by Melvin Kneeland. With the Dragons going to air late in the game. A pass over the middle set up a well-timed and executed hit by the safety.
“It was one of the hardest hits I had ever seen,” Hawkins recalled. “It was the epitome of that team. Hard hitting and tough. The game had already been decided but our guys kept playing to the end of the game. Leave nothing to chance. As a coach, we asked the team to play hard for four quarters no matter what. We did.”
As for the players, the helmet-separating hit was a message to all the other teams still alive in the playoffs.
“That hit was epic and showed who we were as a team — powerful smash mouth,” Fryerson said. “I literally crawled on the field screaming. The crowd went wild, the refs stopped them game for a second.”
Kneeland’s defensive mate Culbreath felt sorry for the Collierville receiver.
“Why did he do that to this young man,” he asked rhetorically. “Great hit, greatest hit to ever come out of Millington. Honestly, I got an unsportsmanlike penalty for being excited for him. He definitely owes me.”
The crowd noise continued the following week for the Whitehaven Tigers’ arrival to Millington Nov. 16. Many experts said the Second Round match up was too close to call.
Both teams proved to be evenly matched until “The Play.” Trailing 13-10, the Trojans used an option play of Fryerson to Simpson for the go-ahead and eventual game-winning touchdown.
“The offensive possession before Travis took it to the house was a turnover,” Culbreath recalled. “Every one from the offense had their heads down as the defense was coming on the field. I told Randon, ‘we will get the ball back for y’all to score.’ That is exactly what happened. It was a sigh of relief and excitement — my emotions. The team emotions were a mile high, great feeling.”
Getting another chance, Fryerson remembers the play that kept Millington’s magical season alive in joyous detail.
“‘The Travis Play,’ I created in my mind as I gave the play in the huddle to the team I told Travis no matter what happens stay behind me for the pitch,” he said. “I’m going to draw the defenders to me and pitch it to you. The Whitehaven defenders were aggressive so I knew if I held the ball a little longer they all would collapse to me.”
As Fryerson started to disappear under the gold jerseys of the Tigers, the ball flips into the air into the waiting arms of Simpson. Millington’s leading rusher did the rest by bursting up the sideline to out race a Whitehaven defender to the 17-13 victory.
“Whitehaven had done a pretty good job of containing us during much of the second half and we needed a momentum shift,” Hawkins recalled. “Travis had been big for us all year and the option play was not something we had run a lot.
“But Randon did a great job of forcing the defenders to take him and Eric had run some motion to get the defense to move with him,” Hawkins continued. “And Randon made a great pitch and Travis did what he did best and that was run with authority. It was a well block play and Travis made some great moves and got into the end zone. What did I think? Heck yes, but did we leave them too much time?”
Time ran out for the Tigers and the Trojans were making their first trip to the Quarterfinals.
Many of the Millington players got their wish of taking on the White Station Spartans. All season the team people talked about throughout the Memphis area was White Station.
The Spartans featured a high-power offense loaded with speed. Although the game was to be played in Millington, many were still picking White Station to advance.
“We wanted White Station at the beginning of the season partially because they were ranked No. 1 and in the Liberty Bowl Classic and we weren’t,” Fryerson said. “We wanted to prove we were the best in Shelby County/Memphis because the papers were talking as if they were the best. No one knew we dominated them in a scrimmage our sophomore year. So we knew early on that they were a finesse team and not physical.”
With the unofficial championship of Shelby County/Memphis on the line in Class 5A, Culbreath said the mission was simple.
“To prove that we were the best team in the county by far,” he said.
The 45-16 decision left little doubt Millington was the best team in the area.
“ Two great teams, both undefeated 12-0 and the thing was over at halftime,” Hawkins recalled. “We played great in all three phases of the game and it was a pleasure to be a part of it. We totally dominated them in front of a huge crowd.”
The stands would be full Nov. 30 for the State Semifinal showdown against Independence. Once again the Trojans were dominating an opponent going ahead 21-6 after two Tausean Holmes touchdowns including an 87-yard reception from Fryerson.
Millington only managed to score 6 points the rest of the game. The Eagles tallied 22 points to edge the Trojans and advance to the State championship game. With so many aspects of the game to note, Culbreath, Fryerson and Hawkins detailed their lasting memories from that epic contest.
“The pass interference that put them on the one yard line,” Culbreath said.
For Fryerson, it was a life lesson to never look too far ahead.
“That game haunts me all the time,” he acknowledged. “I felt we were the better team. We had them beat and let up. They came back we totally overlooked them didn’t take them serious at all. We were looking ahead to state.”
That night on the brown turf of the Millington Football Stadium, Hawkins stood taking full responsibility for how things turned out.
“The lasting memory is we lost by one point in the State Semifinal game,” he said. “Millington had never been that far in the playoffs ever and we were this close to playing for the State championship.
“It was an electric atmosphere, huge and supportive crowd. Beautiful night and for me it ended with a thud. I was taught and always believe that players get credit for wins and the head coach takes the blame for each loss. That was on me. The players and staff were wonderful and I wish for them we could have ended differently.”
The season ended at 13-1 and a game short of State. But with so many records set, the 2007 Trojan team made a lasting impact.
“Brotherhood, the greatest team ever,” Culbreath said.
“The lasting Legacy for the team was truly a brotherhood and we fought for one another,” Fryerson said. “It should be noted that it started in middle school. We were together six years. We mastered the offense in those six years so executing the plays was easy.”
Hawkins retired as head coach after the 2009 season. He would lead the 2008 team to another 10-0 regular season. Hawkins still teaches at Millington and sees reminders of the 2007 team around the school. Hawkins is proud that many of the players from that team graduated from college, are now coaching, working in the community with jobs like firefighters and raising their families.
“Hopefully we were a group of young men who grew to become good husbands, fathers, and leaders,” he said. “Hopefully, we made and continue to make a difference in peoples lives.”
For those players and coaches to continue to have an impact on their communities, the Trojans who occupied the locker room that season had a strong influence on each other.
“This team means so much to me — brothers for life,” Culbreath said. “I remember meeting this guys as a young boy and we instantly jelled. And through the key years we added talent. Through the years and it made us very successful I love those guys for life everyone on the team.”
As the quarterback of the greatest Millington team ever, Fryerson said lifetime bonds were formed.
“Personally that team meant the world to me because I helped build it,” he said. “I was the leader vocally and mentally. I kept everyone together and in check. I made sure everyone came to practice and workouts.
“I reminded the team all season long how hard we worked and how long we had been waiting on the 2007 season,” Fryerson concluded. “I always think of what I could’ve done better. I feel like we fell short, but it was the best time of my life.”
Looking back 10 years later, Hawkins words echo his message in the final team huddle from that season.
“I am proud to be able to say I was part of a wonderful group of players and coaches, and staff who shared an extraordinary time in each others lives,” he concluded. “I cherish the time we shared. Go Trojans.”