In the small towns scattered throughout South Georgia, life sometimes seems to revolve around football.
On the Florida state line, Lowndes County is home to Valdosta High, which bills itself as the winningest program in the history of the United States. Valdosta’s crosstown rival is Lowndes County High, which has won four state championships since 1999 in Georgia’s largest classification since 1999. The 504-square-mile county is home to 109,000 people and boasts two 10,000-seat stadiums, which its faithful enthusiastically fill each fall.
But right now at Lowndes High, as players participate in summer workouts, it’s hard for them or their coaches to concentrate on their beloved sport. This month one of their own when Edward Christian, 20, a former Lowndes offensive lineman who went to Auburn on a football scholarship, was one of three people killed at an off-campus shooting.
Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson said the suspect, 22-year-old Desmonte Leonard, was taken into custody at by a U.S. Marshal at the federal courthouse in Montgomery.
“People are sad, you know,” said Lowndes head football coach Randy McPherson when reached via phone on Tuesday afternoon. “They’re hurt over the loss of Ed, especially our upcoming senior class. They were freshmen when we moved them up to the varsity at the end of the season. They all played with Ed.
“Just sad times. Kind of hard to think about anything else. It’s kind of hard to think about football and everything right now.”
In football-obsessed Southeastern Conference country, the sentiment remained the same 200 miles to the northwest at Auburn, where Tigers head coach Gene Chizik addressed the media.
“I’m not worried about football season,” Chizik said, according to Al.com. “I don’t care about football season. This is about young guys getting past a tragic event.”
Chizik said that Auburn players would be provided with transportation if they wanted to attend memorial services. McPherson said Christian’s has yet to be set.
When they arrived for workouts on Monday, Lowndes players and coaches talked about Christian and how they would deal with the idea of a funeral for one of their own. In the age of 24-hour news cycles and social media, McPherson said most of his players heard the news before they gathered at the school on Monday for their summer workout.
“It happened Saturday night, so it doesn’t take long any more for everybody to find something out,” he said.
As he spoke to a reporter, McPherson’s voice sounded heavy with grief as he had just come from visiting Christian’s home. Christian’s father, identified by the Valdosta Daily Times as “Big” Ed Christian, is a detective with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, McPherson said.
McPherson said he did not speak with Christian’s father, whom the coach said was in the midst of making funeral arrangements. In a video posted on Al.com, Chizik said that his number one priority was supporting the victims’ families.
In keeping with a son whose father works in law enforcement, McPherson described the younger Ed Christian as someone who followed a straight and narrow path.
“He was a really super kid,” McPherson said. “Great personality, never in any kind of trouble. Fan favorite, coach’s favorite. He liked to hang out in the coach’s office, talking and laughing.”
McPherson said the last time he saw his former player was during Auburn’s spring break when Christian visited with his former coaches.
“He spent part of the day here with us and players,” said McPherson, the coach at Lowndes since 2002. “He was just like always, hanging out. He was a very good person.”
As a junior, Christian was part of Lowndes’ 2007 Class AAAAA state championship team. McPherson cited a story about Christian that he said described the kind of person Christian was.
“One of the coaches reminded me of something that he did and used to do,” McPherson said. “He would take up time with the younger kids his senior season, especially a couple of the ninth-graders that came up on the team that were struggling keeping up with the varsity pace at the end of their season. He would take time with them to encourage them and run with them and work with them on their techniques and stuff.
“You’re talking about a kid who had offers at just about every SEC school in the country and here he is trying to help a freshman out. Most of kids of that kind of stature don’t pay any attention to freshmen.”
Asked if Christian was a captain and a leader, McPherson responded, “Absolutely. Yes, sir. He was the type of kid who led by example.”
Last fall, Christian’s playing career was cut short by a back injury, but McPherson said the player was allowed to remain on scholarship to finish out his degree. McPherson believed the NCAA terminology was a “permanent injury.”
“He was doing good in the classroom,” McPherson said. “From what I understand from talking to him, it was a disc injury in his back. The doctor recommended that he did not play anymore.”
So soon after the tragedy, the Lowndes football community has not yet decided on how it will honor Christian, but McPherson is certain that it will.
In Auburn and in Valdosta, they’re still trying to make sense of what happened.
“We definitely need to do something,” the coach said, “but everything has happened so quick. We haven’t decided yet. We’re definitely going to do something.”