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AJC: Football and violins: Hard-hitting Cobb students make music

Cobb+County%E2%80%99s+McEachern+High+School+football+team+has+multiple+skills.+Wearing+their+practice+jerseys+are+E.J.+Scott+%28from+left%29%2C+Michael+Fairbanks%2C+Jeffrey+Bryant%2C+Dante+Fleming%2C+Justin+Powell+and+Courtney+Mills%2C+who+also+play+violin%2C+viola+and+cello+in+the+school+orchestra.
Cobb County’s McEachern High School football team has multiple skills. Wearing their practice jerseys are E.J. Scott (from left), Michael Fairbanks, Jeffrey Bryant, Dante Fleming, Justin Powell and Courtney Mills, who also play violin, viola and cello in the school orchestra.

Cobb County’s McEachern High School football team has multiple skills. Wearing their practice jerseys are E.J. Scott (from left), Michael Fairbanks, Jeffrey Bryant, Dante Fleming, Justin Powell and Courtney Mills, who also play violin, viola and cello in the school orchestra.

photo by Curtis Compton

photo by Curtis Compton

Cobb County’s McEachern High School football team has multiple skills. Wearing their practice jerseys are E.J. Scott (from left), Michael Fairbanks, Jeffrey Bryant, Dante Fleming, Justin Powell and Courtney Mills, who also play violin, viola and cello in the school orchestra.

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The monumental 12,500-seat stadium at McEachern High School in Powder Springs tells the story: This place is a football powerhouse.

With more than 2,300 students, McEachern moved into Class AAAAAAA status this year and competes against the biggest high schools in the region. They almost always finish among the top 15 in the state, and often in the top 5. “Year in, year out, we’re pretty good,” said coach Kyle Hockman.

But when they aren’t knocking down opponents on the gridiron, a small group of these athletes is killing it in the school’s orchestra, with heart-rending themes from “Schindler’s List” or sprightly tunes from Mendelssohn.

That’s because a half-dozen of the first-string football players at McEachern are also first-string string players.

Said Jennifer Floyd, director of the orchestra, “It’s really uncommon for young males to be so aggressive on the field, and be such gentle musicians. I think it’s awesome.”

All have played orchestral music since middle school, and all of them balance demanding 12-hour-plus days, which sometimes don’t bring them home until 9 p.m.

It’s worth it, said Michael Fairbanks, 16, a junior who plays cello and defensive end. “You can’t have it all football,” he said. “You have to have the other side to balance it out, so you’re not insane.”

In addition to Fairbanks, who wears No. 58, this unusual special team includes:

Jeffrey Bryant, No. 56, who is 17 years old and a senior. He plays the viola and his position is defensive end.

Dante Fleming, No. 52, also 17, and a junior. He’s played first violin since sixth grade. He is a linebacker and plays bass in the praise band at his church.

Courtney Mills, No. 22, who is 18 years old and a senior. He plays violin and is a running back.

Justin Powell, No. 31, who is 16 years old and a junior. He plays violin and is a running back, but an eye injury and a concussion he incurred during an auto accident earlier this year have put him temporarily on the bench.

E.J. Scott, No. 3, who is 17, and a senior. He is a wide receiver, and he also plays cello.

There are compromises. Weight training classes conflict with some orchestral classes, forcing some to choose. The coach is fine with that. “I’d rather have the kid doing what he wants to do, and loving what he wants to do, rather than win one more game,” Hockman said. “We’re high school. We don’t get a bonus for winning one more game.”

Any lack of lifting didn’t seem to cut into their performance Friday against North Cobb High School. Though they started out slow (McEachern was down 0-10 at halftime), they came back in the second half.

Michael sacked the North Cobb quarterback. Twice.

E.J. caught two passes for 70 yards, Courtney and Dante made some critical tackles, and McEachern took the win, 17-10.

“We were just sleeping on them at the time,” said Dante, “then we decided to wake up and fight back.”

They’ve also kept the musical quality high, joining All-State competitions, performing at Hawks games and going on expeditions to keep the kids interested. “We do a trip every two years,” said Floyd. “Last year, we went to Europe.”

The 39-year-old Floyd is a taskmaster. When the ninth-graders arrive in her room at the beginning of their high school career, she makes them take the tape off their fingerboards, which means they’re flying without a chart.

A sign in the practice room advises violinists that if they don’t use their shoulder rest, the result will be “Hip Dysplasia, Total Apocalypse, (and) Slouchy Ugly Hideous Horrible Posture.”

“Let me see that fingernail,” she says to one student during a recent rehearsal. “We’re going to cut that today.”

While kicking off a piece called “Fantasia” by Tracey Rush, Floyd says, “Don’t you come in timid. Come in demanding respect.”

And, in the aftermath of a few bad notes, she reassures: “That’s OK. You went for it. We’ll fix the pitches later.”

The dilemma of the sensitive athlete is familiar to viewers of “Glee,” and to Morris Robinson, an opera-singing football player who attended the Northside School for the Performing Arts and who lives in Tyrone. Now performing at La Scala Theater, he’s also a spokesman for Hyatt hotels’ “You’ve Come Too Far to Settle Now” campaign.

photo by CONTRIBUTED BY MCEACHERN HIGH SCHOOL

Michael Fairbanks (from left), Jeffrey Bryant, Justin Powell, Dante Fleming, Courtney Mills and E.J. Scott enjoy playing football and Mozart; all six are first-string McEachern High School football players and all are part of the school orchestra.

“I don’t think it’s as rare as people think,” Robinson said in a phone call from rehearsals in New York. “I think the type of discipline it takes to be an athlete carries over to the discipline it takes to be a classical musician.”

Robinson notes that young men like the McEachern Six also help give the lie to the idea that classical music isn’t masculine.

“Who’s going to question their toughness? They’ve proven already ‘I’m not one to be messed with, but hey, I love my violin.’”

Is there an extra risk for musicians? Does Floyd worry that her violinists will meet violence?

“Every day,” she says. It happened to E.J. two years ago, when he broke his leg during play. He had to sit out the rest of the season, but was back on the cello in a week.

Floyd says what ran through her mind then, and many times since then, is, perhaps, an ungenerous thought, but one that’s understandable: “Oh thank God you didn’t hurt your fingers.”

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AJC: Football and violins: Hard-hitting Cobb students make music