Warriors lean heavily on County natives

By Matt Hill

   Some former Carter County standouts have enjoyed banner seasons for an undefeated semi-pro football team based out of Johnson City.
   The Tennessee Warriors have gone unbeaten in the Mountain Empire Athletic Association playing mostly teams from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The Warriors will travel to Atlanta next week to face off with a top-notch semi-pro team there.
   Eleven former Carter County football players will be making the trip, and Elizabethton High School graduate John Kelly thinks it will be an unforgettable experience.
   "It will be something to remember always," Kelly said at a recent Tennessee Warriors practice. "We need to go down there and get the job done."
   Among the local players that will be participating in the game include Kelly, Andrew Rhinehart and Daniel Shell from Elizabethton High School; Jeremy Puckett, Travis Brown and Jon Robbins from Happy Valley; Jamon Baggett, Troy Baggett, Jon Sluder and Travis Burgess from Unaka; and Aaron Wade, who attended Hampton High School.
   The name that probably jumps out at you first is Rhinehart. The former Cyclone rushed for over 1,800 yards (counting playoffs) as a senior.
   Rhinehart, who started his high school career at Hampton before transferring his sophomore year to Elizabethton, helped lead the Bulldogs to a state quarterfinal berth as a freshman, then made it to the state semifinals twice in the two years he was eligible at EHS.
   Rhinehart didn't play college football, but is very happy about having a chance to perform in this league.
   "It definitely feels good to play ball," Rhinehart said. "It's always in your heart whether you're 70 or 20, it doesn't matter. It's always in your heart and you love to play."
   Carter County has traditionally had strong high school football teams. Cloudland has been a power for years, Hampton had a very impressive playoff run a few years ago, Happy Valley was a state quarterfinal team in 1997, and Elizabethton made it to three-straight state semifinals in the late 1990's.
   But when it comes to producing strong college football players, Carter County, with a few exceptions, has not fared that well.
   Despite this fact, these players are out to prove that athletes in Carter County can play some football.
   "I think they just want to show their abilities," Rhinehart said. "People in Carter County can play. It's a Johnson City team, but people in Carter County can play obviously. John Kelly is one of the leaders on the team, and one of the best players on the team. I think we've got good athletes coming out of Carter County, people just don't know about it."
   Baggett, who is a defensive back on the team, feels the Carter County guys have a special bond.
   "We're tight with the Carter County boys around here," Baggett said. "I think we're some of the key players on the team."
   This team has brought together two old friends from Warrior Hill. Lineman Jon Robbins played with kicker Travis Brown on Happy Valley's Class 2A state quarterfinal team in 1997.
   It was a memorable year for the Warriors. Just two years earlier, Robbins and Brown suffered through an 0-10 season.
   But just like their last year playing together at Happy Valley, (Robbins graduated a year before Brown) this group of Warriors ended the regular season with an undefeated season as well.
   Robbins is very grateful to have the opportunity to rekindle old memories.
   "You sit there as a player, and you think back to high school every day," Robbins said. "It's great to come back out there and have the success that I had then. It's a great feeling to think that in the regular season I've won 16 straight games."
   The most intriguing story on the team might be the story of Jamon and Troy Baggett. Jamon is Troy's son, and being able to be on the same team is something Jamon will never forget.
   "That's something special," Jamon Baggett said. "To play ball with my dad is definitely wild."
   There may be several interesting story lines on this team, but all these players have one thing in common.
   They just want to play football.
   "I just wanted to play one more year," Kelly said. "It's just great to hit people again."