The Tennessee Silverbacks are enjoying the fruits of their labor.
In the program’s seventh year, the team mainly made up of Providence Academy and home-schooled students defeated the Carolina Crusaders 30-12 Saturday afternoon at Ridgeview Elementary School to improve to 7-0 in Pioneer Football League play.
Three of the Tennessee players — seniors Jacolby Darr, Aaron Lewis and Grayson Bledsoe — have been with the program since its inception as a youth football program.
In fact, most of the Silverbacks have been part of the program beyond their high school years.
“We have a large senior class and most of those boys gave been with us at least three to four years,” Silverbacks general manager Bill Bledsoe said. “They’ve had a lot of opportunity to play together with the same coaches and we’ve been able to have consistency with the coaching. They’ve had an opportunity you could argue they wouldn’t have had in a public school system because they’ve been with each other beyond their normal high school experience.”
In many ways, it has been far from the normal high school experience.
For much of their existance, the Silverbacks have been nomads, using the Johnson City Boys Club, Hampton High School, Dobyns-Bennett fields as their home fields. In those first years, they even used a Washington County farm as their practice field with round hay bales taking the place of blocking sleds
They currently practice at Indian Trail Middle School, and use Ridgeview as the home field
“Our goal is ultimately to have our own field,” Bledsoe said. “We follow TSSAA rules and we have to have a field which is a legal field. We don’t make abbrevate that in any way, although having a field is a challenge year-to-year. Ultimately, we would like to have our own field to resolve that problem.
“It was a lot more difficult to work things out when we first started because nobody had an independent program. As we’ve stuck it out year after year, they’ve got to know us and know we’re serious about it.”
Head coach Tim Sprouse added you have to use what’s in front of you, and the game of football is often about changing conditions and teaching the players how to adapt. Bledsoe said through all the challenges the players have kept a positive attitude.
“The boys have never complained to my knowledge about not having something a high school program has,” Bledsoe said. “The coaches have been great about being innovativewith using we’ve had. There’s never been any attitude of we have to have sleds or some other equipment. We want those things and strive to get them, but at the same time, it’s never been an issue.”
While they don’t have the funding of a public school, some sponsors, most notably Johnson City Honda, have allowed the program to buy what has been needed.
There have been thousands of hours with no pay put in by the coaching staff, which includes Terrance Tyree, Walt West and Shane Christian.
Two years ago, the Silverbacks were even honored by the Governor of Tennessee for being the state’s only independent high school team. Most important than that, it has given boys like Darr the opportunity to experience life as a high school football player. The senior quarterback talked about what that meant to him as a Providence Academy student who probably wouldn’t have suited up otherwise.
“It’s been incredible,” Darr said. “We never thought we could play football. We begged Mr. Bledsoe to get it together and it’s been unbelievable. From the beginning to now, we’ve played in all kinds of conditions. We’ve gone from practicing on a farm to playing on these big high school fields. It’s been unbelievable what we’ve gone through to finally get to this point.”
During their journey, the Silverbacks have played Tri-Cities Christian twice, and would love the opportunity to play the Eagles again. There’s still the goal of facing some of the smaller public schools in the area like North Greene or Unaka.
Right now, a full PFL schedule limits the Silverbacks from outside competition, although a proposed league expansion could give them the opportunity to face a public school team.
“We’ve actually had some teams want to play us and we’ve not been able to with the way the PFL schedule is,” Bledsoe said. “We want to expand the league where we have an Eastern and Western division and have a couple of weeks off to play a team from the public school system.”
About Saturday’s game, it didn’t look that much different than one would see at a smaller school on a Friday night. There were the players, the cheerleaders, plenty of volunteers to work concessions and offer other support, as well as an enthusiastic group of fans in the stands.
Once the game kicked off, it was time for the Silverbacks to shine.
They had overcome Carolina (4-3) in a hard-fought 16-6 win earlier in the season. This time around, the game was never in doubt. The Silverbacks marched down the field 59 yards on the opening possession with running back Evan Tyree scoring on a nine-yard run.
Caleb Sprouse and Joe Harmon had key interceptions as Tennessee led 14-0 at the half. The Silverbacks went on to lead 30-0 in the fourth quarter before a couple of late Carolina scores.
Darr had 72 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries and he hit Sprouse on a 30-yard pass play for another touchdown. In addition, Tyree added 70 rushing yards on 10 carries including his score.
“We were able to run the ball against them and we had less penalties than we did the last time we played them and that helped us out,” Darr said. “The blocking up front gave us some easy holes to run through.”
Although the stats were fairly even with Carolina’s John Brock the game’s leading rusher with 113 yards on 15 carries, the Silverbacks controlled the line of scrimmage during the crucial situations.
“It’s all in the line,” Sprouse said. “They were choking us on the outside and we had to take it up the middle. Last time we played them, we were able to pass on them and string them up a little bit. We passed a few times and then used the run game against them. We would line up four-wide and then run the dive plays to keep them honest.
“This was fun, a big win for us. The goal is the championship for the PFL and we’ve got four more games to go.”