It hasn't taken long for Dalton's semi-professional football team to build a winning culture.
The Dalton Danger defeated the Upstate Gamecocks to complete an undefeated season and win the National Developmental Football League championship on Saturday night at Lakeshore Park. It was the 50th win in four years and the second NDFL championship in three seasons for the Dalton franchise, which prides itself not only on its victorious ways, but also on its mission to provide a pathway for players who are still looking for their big break.
"There are semi-pro teams out there that are nothing but (recreation) ball, with players who are just looking for an outlet," team owner John Caudill said. "What we're trying to do here is take that to a higher level."
The NDFL, which consists of teams from Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, is one of more than 30 semi-professional football leagues throughout the country. The level of play varies from team to team and from league to league, but the infrastructure in leagues such as the NDFL exists for football players to continue to play beyond high school and college.
NFDL league games are governed by the same rules used in NCAA football, with 15-minute quarters and full sets of referees, and Caudill, along with Mike Smith, have owned and operated the Dalton Danger since its inception in the fall of 2015. Smith said beyond winning football games, the level of organization and accountability is what separates the Dalton Danger from other teams in the league.
"For some of the players out here it's a chance to strap up the helmet one last time," Smith said. "But for others, it really is a chance to maybe get to the next level. We're not afraid to tell guys what they need to do or not do. Since we've been doing this, I think it's kept a lot of people out of trouble, so I think it's also done some good in that respect."
The Danger carry between 50 and 55 players on their roster, and players travel from as far as Knoxville, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama to play games at Lakeshore Park. Aaron Mize, the team's 26-year-old punter who graduated from Gordon Lee High School in 2011, said the average age of players on the team would likely be in the late 20s. Mize played four years of football at Shorter University in Rome and has played with the Danger ever since. Mize is also one the players on the team who has not given up on his dream of one day playing professionally.
"Obviously, the NFL is the ultimate dream," Mize said. "I'm trying to make a run at the XFL (a professional league in the United States) right now, and with this I'm able to stay ready. When you're not training with an NFL team or actually at a minicamp, teams think you're sitting at home doing nothing. You've got to be relevant to get a chance, and I think if I can excel here then I'm pretty sure I could do it at the next level."
The Danger's head coach, Jeremiah Hammond, has also been with the team since it began and said his love of coaching is what drives him following his own playing days. A graduate of Pepperell and Shorter University where he played football before becoming a coach, Hammond said being able to helps others through football has been an unexpected byproduct as well.
"I've used money out of my own pocket to help guys with some things, and I'm not saying that to act like I have the money to do that because I don't," Hammond said. "I'm doing it show them that if you need help there are other outlets.
"Myself, I was an adopted child, so I know about somebody stepping in and maybe doing something that somebody else couldn't do or maybe didn't have a chance to do. So I wanna be able to give these guys a chance that maybe they've never had."
Hammond said the Danger won every game this season by a substantial margin, and added the winning never gets old for either himself or the players. Heading into the future he hopes to recruit younger players from the Whitfield County area.
"I've talked to a few Dalton kids, and they're mostly just trying to figure out what this whole thing is about," Hammond said. "I just have to get them out here, because it only takes one. If I can get one kid out of Dalton, then before I know it I'm out here with six or seven of his buddies. That's how it happens."