LSU vs Clemson: What's in the Water? Phenix City, AL produces National Championship hopes
PHENIX CITY, AL — When Clemson’s Justyn Ross and LSU’s Peter Parrish face one another on college football's biggest stage Monday night, the national championship game, it will be the second time in two years that Phenix City will watch its own battle at the pinnacle of college football.
In 2019 it was Ross’ Tigers versus Markail Benton’s Alabama Crimson Tide. These matchups are becoming a testament to what is being accomplished in this small town in West Central Alabama.
“It’s been crazy because it’s been like that for the last couple of years,” said A’Montae Spivey, the youngest son of Carlton Spivey, a local Pop Warner coach who has produced 26 collegiate level players in the last three years from his Bi-City Longhorns youth team. A’Montae himself is a freshman running back at Arkansas. “With my cousin, Markail Benton being at Alabama, it’s been like that for the last couple of years. Us being able to put the city on the map in a different way, like through football, is big.”
That football is funneled through the Phenix City Youth Center, more specifically its football field. Though barren on this particular Tuesday afternoon in January, something about the uninhabited field and the dried-brown blades of grass warms the chilled breeze and fights to bring back the sultry Alabama summer.
On any given Sunday, this field is full of 60-75 kids, from age 10 to Central High School varsity players. “The Lab” is what they call it — a weekly training session for the city’s football youth.
This football field, this city is a “pipeline,” said coach Spivey.
Most of Phenix City’s best players have been a part of this fabric, and often give back to the kids below them, because that’s what they were taught: work hard, revere those who came before them, and pay it forward to the players behind them.
Former players who have moved on to the college ranks train high school players when they are home. The high school players train the youth players and the cycle continues, year in and year out.
Homage is paid, a realistic and reachable bar is set, and the product of their hard work lies before them as former players, who are successful on the game's highest levels and provide living examples of what can be accomplished.
“It’s something that we taught them as young kids,” said Spivey, who has coached youth football for 15-plus years in Phenix City and won a Pop Warner National Championship in 2010. “You have to imagine, I had most of these kids that you’re talking about from the time they were 7, 8, 9, 10 years old. They were taught to help each other. They were taught to come back and do this stuff. It was something we instilled in them. We instilled a family environment.”
Spivey, 41, began listing a few: Justyn Ross (Clemson). Markail Benton, his nephew (Alabama). Zion Webb (Jacksonville State). His sons, Jamaar Spivey (Mississippi Valley State), Jaren Spivey (Faulkner University) and A’Montae Spivey, (Arkansas). Tyler Moore (Kennesaw State), and “countless more,” Spivey said.
That’s what flows through this pipeline; that’s what’s in the water.
“Down here in Phenix City, you have to give credit to all the little league coaches,” said local trainer and former Central High School defensive back coach Brandon Averett. “I think they deserve just as much credit as the high school coaches. On every level you have good coaches.
“They do a great job with these guys, so the feeder system is very big here.”
The roots of National Championship pursuits
As a product of Phenix City's feeder system, players like Clemson’s Ross and LSU’s Parrish — who moved to Phenix City from Miami when he was in seventh grade — will make their mark as part of Monday night’s spectacle.
But before the first whistle blows Monday, Spivey can't help but reflect on Ross' journey. "As a young player, (Ross) had something in him that was different," said Spivey, who began coaching Ross in football when he was 10. "He had a competitive nature, and to be honest with you, you really saw it the most in basketball. Justyn was a basketball star, and for the longest, as a youth player, we thought he was going to be a Division I basketball player."
Spivey had coached Ross in basketball since he was in the third grade, but it wasn't until the summer going into his sixth grade year that Ross' parents placed him under Spivey's tutelage in football, as well.
Ross wanted to play quarterback, but his basketball skills transitioned to the football field smoothly, making him a natural receiver. Even as a 12-year-old, Ross soared over multiple defenders for catches and came into his own that year at the Battle of the Big Man 7-on-7 tournament in Knoxville, Tennessee.
"He absolutely dominated," Spivey said. "I remember we were playing the team in the championship game and we were going into the end zone probably around the 10, and I called a play and the opposing coach said he knew we were going to throw the ball to the 'big kid' (Ross). And I told the coach, 'You're absolutely right and there's nothing you can do to stop him.'"
Ross' opponents then rolled a safety over top of the double coverage he was already facing, Spivey said. "They put three guys over there, we threw it up anyway and Justyn went up and got it."
Although Parrish didn't play Pop Warner for Spivey, he said Parrish did join "The Lab" training sessions at the field, occasionally. Otherwise, Parrish spent a majority of his time training with his father, a former coach himself.
Averett, who helped coach Parrish at Central, said Parrish still belongs to the composition of Phenix City's football culture though he moved to the city later on. Any time Averett pulled up to the park, he said Parrish was on the field training with his father. That, Averett said, spoke to the very roots of this city's athletes.
"Those guys feel, really and truly, that the training helps them to get that much better," Averett said, "but they're born to play the game of football."
We are more than 'small town dreams'
Phenix City has a population of 36,435, according to the 2019 Census. It’s tiny and sits minutes away from the Georgia border separated from Columbus, Georgia by the Chattahoochee River and its series of lakes.
And as it usually goes with small towns, they present small town problems, coach Spivey said.
“There’s not a ton to do in a positive sense, so it’s easy to get distracted in a negative sense,” Spivey said, and he doesn’t want the kids he works with to get swallowed by the complacency of a small town, or get involved in what he cited as “your hood stuff.”
“It’s the small town distractions that suck you in, that make you want to stay here. Whether it’s a girl, whether it’s street life or it’s just that you have small town dreams.”
Spivey has seen this destroy some of the city's best athletes that he grew up with, so he created his program as a means to combat those distractions and to set up the players behind him with something greater.
Seeing the players he helped groom, like Ross, suit it up in the national championship game and play on the college level creates a feeling of pride and a job well done for Spivey and others who have witnessed their ascension. It brings pride to a city and actualizes dreams for kids watching the players that came before them.
“It’s a once in a lifetime dream,” coach Spivey said. “It’s a shot in the dark, but for Justyn (Ross) his shot has come true two years in a row. It makes young kids believe anything is possible. He symbolizes hope.”
This stage is a reminder for the folks in Phenix City that the talent they produce is elite and that begins with “doing it the right way,” Averett said.
With every season, there’s a new crop of kids that needs to be reached and they will. Through countless hours of hard work, peer accountability, and respect for the game and the ones that came before, the pipeline continues and elite athletes are forged.
And A’Montae Spivey speaks for all when he says: “Y’all don’t want to come see Central Phenix City, man. Just stay out of the way. We got guys out here that are just straight dogs. If you ain’t a dog, don’t come ‘round here.”
Contact reporter Andre Toran at 334-322-4631 or AToran@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndreToran.