Editor's note: This is the first in a series looking back on great teams from Athens and Limestone County. The 2006 Athens Golden Eagles won the Class 5A football state championship, the first time the Golden Eagles had won the state title in 30 years.
Allen Creasy had been coaching football long enough to know a special class when he saw one. And the class of 2006 was one of those special classes.
The former Athens High head coach knew before those 2006 seniors even started high school they were going to be special, and he was right. That 2006 class led Athens to a Class 5A state championship, defeating Eufaula in the championship game.
Current Athens head coach Cody Gross came to Athens as offensive coordinator in the spring of 2003, when the seniors who made up that 2006 state championship team were freshmen.
“I came to Athens in the spring of their eighth grade year,” Gross said. “I remember the first conversation I had (with Creasy) about possibly coming to work for him, and him talking about that group of eighth graders. He said the next real chance we've got to win it all will be with this group.”
One of the reasons for that was one particular player.
“He said 'We've got a quarterback in that group that's special. It's Gardner Ezell's son,'” Gross said.
That would be Rob Ezell, who went on to play at the University of Alabama and is currently an offensive analyst with the Crimson Tide under coach Nick Saban.
“Rob Ezell willed us to a state championship,” Gross said. “That's a guy that just refused to lose, and the rest of those guys were right there with him. One reason he was such a leader is that he was so competitive. You knew those guys believed in him. They didn't always like him, but they would follow him anywhere because of the toughness he had.”
Creasy said Ezell's confidence rubbed off on the other players around him.
“I used to tell Rob, 'Everybody's going to cheer every play you're in there. Sometimes it's going to be our fans cheering and sometimes it's going to be theirs,'” Creasy said. “He was such a dynamic player and had such a confidence in not only what he could do, but a confidence in the guys around him. We had some players play past their abilities and a lot of that was his belief in them and his confidence in them doing their jobs.”
That confidence was never shaken throughout the 2006 season, even as Athens lost three games and finished third in a very tough Class 5A, Region 8. The Golden Eagles finished the regular season with a 7-3 overall record and a 5-2 region record, having suffered consecutive losses to Russellville and Hartselle in the middle of the season. Athens closed its regular season with a 31-14 loss to Class 6A opponent Sparkman.
It wasn't quite the regular season people expected. Athens had high expectations in 2006 after having gone to the Class 5A semifinals in 2004 and the quarterfinals in 2005. But both of those teams had middling regular-season records before getting hot in the playoffs.
“So many of them started as sophomores (in 2004) and that team went 5-5 in the regular season and went to the semifinals,” Gross said. “Then as juniors they went 6-4 and make it to the quarterfinals. That bunch was very experienced and very confident. Losing those two games in the middle of the year didn't shake that confidence.”
Athens began the 2006 playoffs by going on the road and defeating Briarwood Christian 21-11 and then came back home and thumped undefeated Fort Payne 41-7. At that point of the Class 5A playoffs, the only teams left in the north half of the bracket all resided in Region 8.
Athens' quarterfinal matchup was a road game against Hartselle, which had defeated Athens 35-31 in the regular season. The playoff game was a defensive struggle, and Athens found itself trailing 13-10 late in the fourth quarter before some luck went their way.
Ezell fired a pass toward Vincent Azzarello, but it was tipped and bounced off the hands of two Hartselle defenders before ricocheting to receiver Dewon Tisdale, who was standing at the 15-yard line. Tisdale gathered in the ball and ran into the end zone with fewer than 2 minutes remaining to grab the lead. Athens would then recover the ball after the kickoff and score an insurance touchdown to seal a 23-13 victory.
“I still get nervous thinking about it,” Tisdale said of his catch. “What if I had dropped that ball? It was a real big play and changed the momentum of the game. It's really unforgettable.”
That win set up a semifinal matchup against another Region 8 opponent, J.O. Johnson. Athens defeated the Jaguars 21-14 in the regular season and won the rematch 21-18 to punch their ticket to the state championship game.
Creasy said the best Class 5A teams in the state all resided in Region 8. It was just a matter of which one of them would win the state championship.
“The toughest games we played in the playoffs were against the teams we had already played in the regular season,” Creasy said. “If we hadn't of beat Hartselle, Hartselle would've probably won (the state title) that year. And if Hartselle didn't win it, Johnson would have won it. I feel pretty comfortable saying any of the teams in that region could have accomplished the same thing we did if we hadn't of beaten them.”
But it was Athens' time. The Golden Eagles capped off a special season, and the special careers of those seniors, with a 10-7 victory over Eufaula in Birmingham in the state championship game.
Tisdale once again played a big part. With the game tied 7-7 late in the first half, Tisdale caught a long pass from Ezell that put Athens in field goal range. Matt Jackson then made a 23-yard field goal on the final play of the half to give Athens the lead.
Neither team scored in the second half, and Eufaula's final drive ended with a missed field goal with 6 seconds left. Athens ran one final play to run out the clock and celebrated a state championship.
“You always hope with every team you're going to win a state championship,” Creasy said. “But you can never predict that type of success. That team had all the components you needed for a great team, and it all came together.”
Gross left after that season to take the head coaching job at Colbert County High School, then went on to coach at Wilson for a season before taking the offensive coordinator job at the University of North Alabama. He came back to Athens as head coach in 2016 after Creasy's retirement. That 2006 team still is a very special one for him.
“I've gotten chills about 10 times just thinking about those guys and what they did,” Gross said. “I could talk for hours about them and go on and on about different guys. That was a special team and I'm just honored to have been a part of it.”