ELBERTON, Ga. – The man directing me into the parking lot at Elbert County High School at 7:56 a.m. ET was polite but firm: “You have four minutes.”
They were closing the doors to the gym at 8:00 sharp for maybe the biggest spectacle to ever hit this town of about 4,500 near the Georgia-South Carolina border: three members of the Blue Devils football team were signing National Letters of Intent, highlighted by Rivals five-star prospect Mecole 'Meco' Hardman at 8:30. The school choice of the player Rivals.com rates the nation’s No. 11 overall prospect and No. 2 athlete would be broadcast live on Atlanta television and across the Internet to (overly) interested college football fans everywhere.
By the 8 o’clock shut-the-doors deadline, the quaint old gym was pretty well packed with a mixture of students and adults from the community. Administrators in suits and bowties ran the show. State troopers and Elbert County sheriffs stood in the back of the gym. About 15 of Hardman’s relatives wore “Team Meco” shirts. So did the pastor of Love & Action Christian Center, where the Hardmans go to church.
An excited hum of chatter provided background noise.
An array of video cameras were set up at midcourt, facing a makeshift announcement table where the players would sign their letters while flanked by family and coaches. When it was Hardman’s turn, six sets of balloons were tied to the chairs and six cakes were arrayed on the table, each topped with a school pennant: Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. The home-state school, Georgia, was not represented by a cake or balloons but was believed to be the leader.
Also on the gym floor, local radio station WSGC – broadcasting in Elberton since 1947 – was airing the event live. Nobody was taking anything for granted.
“No matter what Meco does, we’ve got to support him,” one of the radio men said over the air. “We know this is a Georgia crowd, but he’s made us all proud and he’s going to represent Elbert County well. If we take it on the chin, we wish him well.
“Meco has been extremely good about covering this [decision] up. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Meco. He deserves the right to do this.”
At one point some members of Team Meco moved the cakes around. This produced a spasm of excitement from the radio crew.
“Wait a wait, wait a minute,” one of the broadcasters said. “They’re repositioning. ... Where is the Georgia cake?”
Hardman had brought more excitement to Elbert County football than anyone in a long time, judging by the few banners in the gym. There was a Class AA state title in 1995, and regional titles in 1993 and ’96, and that was about it. Now in Class AAA, the Blue Devils were sixth in the final poll this season, powered by Meco.
His older brother, Valdon Cooper, played at Illinois. Another Elbert County product, Taj Letman, just finished a productive career at Marshall. But everyone agrees: the best player to come out of here is Meco Hardman.
"I get asked, ‘Is he the best you ever coached?’ " said Elbert County coach Sid Fritts, a veteran of more than 30 years in the business. “I’m quick to say, ‘No, he’s the best I’ve ever seen.” One of the radio guys was saying he knew Meco would be something special when he coached him in youth basketball. His mom, Latrivia Hardman, remembers her son signing his papers in third grade as Michael Vick.
“He got a whuppin’ for that,” she said. “But he kept doing it. He said he was going to play in the NFL, he was going to get offers from this school and that school.
“Everything that’s happened to him, he’s spoken into existence.”
Finally, at 8:37, it was time for Meco to speak his college future into existence. The Atlanta TV station went live, did a quick setup interview, and then Meco disappeared into the hallway behind a big paper banner that was stretched in front of the doorway into the gym. The banner read:
“Nobody on the field wants to win more than me. But what field will it be?” Beneath that were logos for Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State and Tennessee.
With several hundred cell phones focused on the banner to record the moment for posterity, Meco burst through. He was wearing a white No. 4 Georgia jersey, a white Georgia hat and Georgia gloves.
The gym exploded. One of their boys is going to be a Bulldog.
It was showy and silly and over the top, but that's what signing day has become. And little old Elbert County was finally getting a taste of what the madness is like.
The TV guy tried to interview Meco, but his answers were drowned out by the cheering crowd. The radio guys stopped talking to applaud. One of them noted the jersey number Meco was wearing was the same as former Georgia great Champ Bailey.
“I’m not going to say Meco is Champ Bailey,” he warned. “But I’ll tell you what, he looks good wearing No. 4.”
This was the result most everyone in the gym was hoping for. It just took a while getting here.
LaTrivia Hardman said her son didn’t have Georgia in his top 10 early – he was initially smitten by Tennessee. But as the process went on, he privately narrowed his choices to Michigan and Georgia.
“He was so iffy,” she said. “Probably in the last month he said, ‘OK, it’s Georgia.' "
But that wasn’t public knowledge. Meco carried on a bit of a misinformation campaign, talking about other schools and at one point putting a drawing of himself and another player in Ohio State uniforms on his Twitter page. The family played along, enduring the endless questions.
“I probably was asked 50 times a day,” LaTrivia said. “If I didn’t get asked in person, I got a phone call or a text.”
As Meco did interviews and posed for pictures with fellow students and local law enforcement, his grandfather circulated proudly. Larry Huff was born in Elbert County 64 years ago, and still lives what he calls an “old school” life of rural simplicity – he makes his own soap, for instance, and even though retired he still does freelance electrical work.
Huff now has 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. One of them a brand-new Georgia Bulldog.
“I’m the one who started all this,” he said, waving a hand at the scene. “Man, it’s outstanding to see.”
Not far away, his daughter was graciously receiving one well-wisher after another.
“It makes me really happy to keep him close to home,” Latrivia said. “That’s my baby boy.”
While a nation of recruiting fanatics appraises the players as commodities – how many stars, what are they ranked, what is their 40 time? – for the families and friends of signees this is something much more personal. It is an individual day of immense pride and joy, a milestone, a moment of passage.
And here in Elberton, an old Granite town far off the beaten path, this was a moment to be remembered for years to come. The media circus came to town for a slice of football Americana, starring a local boy who has hit the big time.
Boxing up cakes to take home, Latrivia Hardman smiled broadly.
“It was a proud day for Elbert County.”
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