By Thomas Sellers Jr.
On May 7 in the Brighton High School Gymnasium Lobby, Strickland was joined by best friend and Cardinal Tennis teammate for his official signing ceremony. Strickland’s inking of his national letter of intent came a few weeks after Russell made his college intentions official by signing with the Lions as well.
“Cody has worked so hard,” his mother Sarah Honeycutt said. “I’m very proud of him. He’s actually the first in our family to go to college. I didn’t go. I went to banking school, actually twice. My parents didn’t go. Their parents didn’t go. So he’s actually the first to go to a university.”
There to share the historical family moment with Cody were his parents Sarah and Clay Honeycutt and younger brother Aaron Strickland. Also in attendance were Cody’s tennis coaches Kim Greer, Kent Bradshaw and Dean Brown.
One special person wasn’t present. Gary “Bop” Ballard passed away May 2 after battling cancer. The man Cardinal players called Bop was able to attend his grandson’s signing to FHU. But for Cody’s big day, the purple T-shirt with #4GB written on the left sleeve was in honor of his memory.
“It’s awesome to see how many people he touched and who all love him,” Russell said. “We’re going to do it for him this year. We’re going to State for him.”
The “we” Russell was referring to was his longtime doubles partner Strickland. Last year the duo reached the Class 3A State Tennis Doubles Tournament in Murfreesboro losing a tough match to Houston.
Led by Head Coach Kim Greer, the pair of Cardinals have won the District 13-3A doubles title in 2018 and 2019. Russell and Strickland also earned the Region title in 2018.
“It’s been a long fun ride,” Russell said. “He was a baseball player and I had only been playing for about 6 months. I knew a little bit more (about tennis) than him. I thought I knew a lot more than him but I really didn’t.
“When he started his form was taking both hands and swinging like this (a baseball swing),” he added. “That was the beginning. Then it was all good from there.”
Strickland grew up in Tipton County playing the game of baseball. Then a chance meeting with Russell led to him falling in love with tennis.
“We started playing in the seventh grade,” Strickland recalled. “That’s when we met and we’ve been best friends ever since. I grew up playing baseball – we both did. He got me into playing tennis in the seventh grade.
“We both kind of clicked at tennis,” he continued. “We played all through eighth grade, ninth grade and 10th grade. Then we started playing doubles and went to State. We’ve done better than any other team here that I can remember.”
Some of the best Cardinals to hit the court in recent years have been Kevin Johnson, Braden Twisdale and Blake Armour. With an undefeated 2019 regular season, Strickland and Russell made sure they would be mention in the same breathe as those greats.
The signing to Freed Hardeman added to the legacy of the duo. Honeycutt knew her son was good but she had her doubts if he could reach the collegiate level.
“It was really like a dream to think Cody would be good enough to move on to the next level,” she admitted. “Cody is a year behind Austin with them both having September birthdays. He’s almost a year older.
“So to be able to reach that level of play in order to play in college, as a mom I was still skeptical,” Sarah continued. “But he’s worked really hard on the court. He and Austin play every weekend and play together on the team. So I think that had a little to do with his decision.”
Sarah said with Cody’s calling he had a few colleges in mind to help direct his future. But having a chance to join his best friend on the court again gave the Lions the edge.
“He was saved at an early age,” she recalled. “He was saved at 10 years old. He surrender to being a pastor/preacher two years ago. It was then he surrendered to Christian service. He’s visited other college but he felt like Freed would be a good fit. In order to continue his mission and to play tennis he felt Freed was a good fit. He’s excited.”
Russell, ranked No. 4 in the Brighton Class of 2019, said FHU won him over when the tennis program expressed interest.
“I picked Freed Hardeman mainly for the tennis,” he acknowledged. “I had looked into it before when I thought about playing tennis. I didn’t know it was an opportunity. I started talking to the coach, visited the campus and loved the people. I thought it was nice and that’s why I picked Freed Hardeman.”
Seeing his friend happiness about attending Freed Hardeman led Strickland and his family to stepping foot on the Henderson campus to get a better feel.
“Their values, when we visited the college everybody was Christ-centered,” Honeycutt said. “We were looking forward to the opportunity because his faith is very important to him. Since faith is very important to him, Freed will build off what we taught him at home.”
With his brother by his side, Strickland is ready for the next chapter in his tennis, academic and spiritual life.
“I’ve always felt the need to serve God because God has always been there for me through whatever,” Cody concluded. “Austin and I have been going through a lot this past week when his grandfather passed away. He’s not able to be here with us today. I do believe in God and if I didn’t have that I would be clueless throughout this whole thing. God has really put me in a place to further my career and do what’s right for Him.”
Strickland and Russell reached the 2019 State Boys Doubles Tournament last month in Murfreesboro. The duo won the first set in their opening match. But two sets later, the storied Brighotn careers of Strickland and Russell came to an end.