David Kvidahl :: Huddled together, the children watched intently. Not quite old enough to join, they sat off to the side or straddled bikes, daydreaming about their time.

When their turn comes, practice will look different. It will sound different. That’s the plan, at least.

After missing the playoffs the last six seasons, Cahokia High has a renewed energy and vision for its football program.

The school made football a priority this season. The coaching staff is new, experienced and bigger. Cahokia signed a deal with adidas to provide its athletic programs with quality gear at a reasonable rate, no small thing for an impoverished school district and community.

Cahokia is banking on football to be a beacon.

“Football is the flagship of any school,” Cahokia athletics director Earl McDowell Jr. said. “Track and field has been our bread and butter. The buzz around the community is at an all-time high. It’s a new beginning.”

The Comanches open their season at 7 p.m. Friday by playing host to Highland.

John Clay was the first piece of the new foundation. A former Northwest High and University of Missouri standout lineman, Clay was hired during the winter to replace Antwyne Golliday, who resigned after 13 seasons. The Comanches qualified for the playoffs between 2003 and 2009 but have been shut out since. They finished last season 4-5.

Clay, 52, brings with him a wealth of personal and professional experience. He was a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1987 National Football League draft. Clay played two seasons before an injury ended his career.

He spent 13 seasons as an assistant coach at East St. Louis. He left after the 2013 season for the top job at Confluence Academy, where he lasted one year.

His experience at Cahokia should more closely resemble his time at East Side. The neighboring communities are similar in many regards, including their socioeconomic makeup. They are also linked through the branches of family trees.

It was one of the selling points for new defensive coordinator Marion Stallings. A 1971 East St. Louis graduate, Stallings was on staff with his alma mater’s football team for nearly 40 years. His tenure ended in 2014, but the 62-year-old was not ready to hang up his whistle. When Cahokia reached out, Stallings didn’t hesitate.

“I ran over here. Cahokia and East St. Louis, it’s almost one,” Stallings said. “Some of these kids, I coached their dads and taught their moms. By coming here, it was comfortable.”

Stallings might be comfortable, but his biggest challenge as a defensive coach will be to make his players uncomfortable.

The Comanches have their share of athletic talent, but it has to be hardened in the weight room and on the field.

“The skill set is there. We have as many athletes as anybody in this metropolitan area,” Stallings said. “What is not here is the discipline of practice, the football IQ and last, but not least, the physicalness of the game. We have to get more physical. We can increase the football IQ, but that pounding, that physicalness, that toughness you need, that’s what we’re working on.”

Work comes in many forms at practice. Stallings drilled the linebackers on proper tackling technique on one side of the field. On the other, Clay had the linemen going through their steps. In the middle of this grass classroom was senior quarterback Wayne Grant.

The 5-foot-9, 155-pound Grant went over throwing on the run and handoff exchanges under the watchful eye of offensive coach Byron Gettis. A 1998 Cahokia graduate, Gettis, 36, was a four-year starter at quarterback and overall standout athlete. Gettis played professional baseball for eight years as an outfielder and spent three months in the big leagues in 2004 with the Kansas City Royals. He played football four years at Southern Illinois as a tight end. Last year, he was the interim head coach for Lindenwood University–Belleville’s football team.

As the offensive coordinator this season, Gettis sees his return to Cahokia as a unique opportunity to make a difference in his hometown.

“Yeah, we love football, but we’re using football to really teach the young men and the kids about life. Football is just the tool,” Gettis said. “This is our future, so this is how you turn the community around. You get the youth involved in sports. Football taught me so many things.”

Teaching is a focal point for this staff. Already this season there is a sense among the 50 or so players in the program things are different. It starts with the depth and knowledge of the men with the whistles in their mouths.

“It’s different because there’s a lot more coaches, there’s a lot more teaching going on,” Grant said. “A lot more is getting done.”

Clay wants the players to get it done at practice and the other parts of their lives. One of the reasons he became a coach was to help kids like these break through and have the opportunity to get their college education paid for.

“The thing I’m trying to get them to understand is it takes hard work. Nothing is going to be given to you,” Clay said. “You have to get the grades, you have to get the test scores. You have to put in the work in the offseason. You have to perform on the field.”

And even if the players don’t earn a college scholarship, there are still benefits and lessons to be gleaned that come from playing the game.

“Hopefully you learn some discipline and skills that help you in whatever you do,” Clay said. “If you decide to go to a trade school or go to work right away, you’ll have some skills to take with you and hopefully help you in your livelihood.”

Grant already was headed in that direction. He has a 3.8-grade point average and an offer to play at Missouri Baptist University. But there are many others who can benefit from a revitalized program.

“The environment is great. We’re in tune with the coaching staff. We’re excited about this. They make it fun,” Grant said. “We bring the intensity with us wherever we go. We’re loud, everybody knows when Cahokia is in the house.”

You can email David Kvidahl at dkvidahl@stltoday.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidSTLhss 

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