By Dedra Cordle
From the mid 1980s until the early 1990s, the Franklin Heights High School football teams were not to be taken lightly.
“We were the top dogs on this side of town,” said Jeffrey Rice, a former quarterback and defensive back during the latter part of that era.
Each season saw them breaking and setting statistical records, defeating bitter rivals Grove City and Westland, and even participating in the state playoffs.
With a succession of successful seasons, future teams were expected to follow in the winning tradition of their predecessors. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
For the decades that followed, the football program languished. While there were bright spots here and there, the team largely experienced limited win seasons and the players saw a revolving door of coaches.
As the husband of a Franklin Heights alumnus, Tennyson Varney knew all about the troubles of the program. He even got a firsthand view.
During a coaching stint at Hamilton Township High School, the Rangers were set to scrimmage against the Golden Falcons, but were told they had to cancel due to a lack of players.
When he took a teaching position at Central Crossing, he saw that there was an opening for a head football coach at Franklin Heights for the upcoming 2014 season. On a whim, he decided to go for it and see what he could do.
He said he was shocked by the state of the program when he took over.
“I knew it was going to be rough, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as rough as it was.”
With a lack of equipment, the loss of the training facility (the school was undergoing construction at the time) and facing a skeptical group of teenagers, he asked them if they would be willing to trust him and his vision for the program.
It took time, but eventually the students bought into his vision. They didn’t even lose hope when they went 1-9 in his first season. In fact, it was during a close game against the vaunted Olentangy Orange High School that they began to believe in themselves and each other.
“That game sparked an interest and a competitive edge,” said Varney.
The following year would have seen them improve to 8-2, but an accidental violation regarding the eligibility of one of their players saw their record stripped to 4-6.
When winter training began for this season, the team was feeling confident. There was even talk about making the state playoffs.
“The team believed we could do it, but nobody else in the whole world did,” said senior quarterback Dylan Akers.
Much to the surprise of the students, the alumni and their opponents, the team went undefeated until Week 9 against New Albany. But by Week 10, they knew they had officially made the state playoffs in their division – the first time the program has done so in nearly three decades.
On Nov. 4, Franklin Heights hosted Licking Heights for their first ever home playoff game. In front of a packed house, they defeated the Hornets and became the first team to ever win a playoff game.
With confidence and hope, they set off the following week to take on Massillon Perry in the regional semifinals. Unfortunately, the Golden Falcons’ surprising season came to an end that night.
Though many of the players will be graduating next spring, the coaches and players are confident that future teams will build on their success.
“Throughout these years we learned how to motive each other and believe in ourselves enough to not go back to the old Heights,” said Akers.
Rice, who is now the freshman head coach and a varsity wide receivers coach at the school, said thanks to the vision of Varney and his belief in the student athletes, this program now has the foundation and motivation to become the feared team they once were.
“This is just the start,” he said.