Athletics — at any level — can transcend past the action that takes place between the sidelines.

Following the Seymour High School football team’s loss to East Central in the sectional championship game at Bulleit Stadium, on Nov. 4, a little girl searched the turf for a friend sporting pads.

The Jackson Elementary kindergartner approached Seymour senior running back Zach Carpenter, whose emotions swirled inside as his high school career came to an end.

“Good game,” the girl said, looking up to the boy double her size.

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Carpenter took a knee beside her, and the two hugged on the illuminated field.

There’s been a shift in the football program’s culture over the past four years: on and off the field.

The expectations set have reached new heights, and it’s paying off for the Owls in more ways than one.

Reading program leaves lasting impression

This past fall, 20 varsity players were split into groups of four and traveled every Friday to five elementary schools in Seymour where they read to students.

The players, dawning their purple jerseys, read to kids every Friday morning during the regular season at 8:30 a.m.

Some weeks the players picked the book, while the students chose reading material on other occasions.

“They were there about a half an hour,” Jackson Elementary kindergarten teacher Julie Rueger recalled. “Each elementary school handled it the way that fit their building best. Jackson had five football players to “share.”

“Since we are a large building with many classrooms, Each teacher signed up for one player to come and read, one Friday during the season.”

Response from students, parents and the high school athletes proved tremendous.

As the kids got to know the players in the classroom, they also wanted to see their mentors on the field.

“(Parents) would tell me, ‘My child wants to go watch Zach, so we are going to the game!” Rueger said. “One parent posted on social media that they were headed to an away game so their son could watch, “his best friend Zach, even if Zach didn’t know he was his best friend.” It was awesome to see many of the players posing for pictures with elementary students after the huddle each game.”

Those relationships continued to build through the season.

“Every week was the same question: Is Zach coming back to read this week?” Rueger said. “And when he had to leave, it was hugs all around. They didn’t want him to leave.

“Several asked if he could stay all day. After the last visit, a parent told me that her daughter still talked about the first book Zach read to our class. She is going to purchase that book and have Zach write a message in it as a keepsake for her daughter.”

I think, at first, the players didn’t realize how much the elementary kids would respond to them being there. When they started seeing how much the kids loved it, they really did a great job interacting with them.”

Rueger said she hopes to see the program continue for years to come.

“I would love to see the program continue, and I would also love to see the other sports doing the same thing,” she said. “I’m pretty sure some players of other sports have visited other Seymour elementary schools, for various reasons, but not at Jackson — at least not in the last four years.

I would also love to see “sectional tours” for all of the sports at the elementary schools. Maybe where the players come in to all of the schools and our students get to see them in a more personal environment. Maybe “parade through the halls” while the students line the halls and cheer them on and make signs for them or a school assembly of some sort, maybe with the cheerleaders performing and helping to build school spirit.”

Rueger, along with other teachers, recognizes the importance of older kids giving back to the youth.

“There is so much to be proud of and these high schoolers can be great role models if we give them the opportunities and show them that people are watching and paying attention to them, both on and off the field,” Rueger said.

Getting it done in the classroom

Over the first marking period of the school year, football players at Seymour High School passed more than 99 percent of their classes.

Members of Seymour’s coaching staff implemented a system in which every player on the team must turn in a report by game day.

The small, rectangular slip has a 1 to 5 grading scale for behavior and academics each week that’s filled out by the athletes’ teachers.

Owls head coach Josh Shattuck and assistant coach Brice Darling came up with the idea.

“Each week, every player in our program must get their teachers to sign off on their academic progress and behavior,” Shattuck said. “That was their ticket to be able to play in the game each week.  We strongly believe that the basic responsibility of our players to get this signed by all eight of their teachers each and every week has resulted in major gains in the classroom for our players.

“They are held accountable and have answered the call to be more responsible.”

Part of the objective was to address issues as/if they happened.

“Often times we find out about situations after they have already been taken to far,” Darling said. “We wanted to be proactive about behavior in the classroom and our grades. We will always try to win games, but the term is student-athlete. The student part comes first, and if you can’t handle being a student, you can’t handle being a football player for Seymour on top of that.”

The program wants to leave no room for speculation when it comes to academic importance.

“We talk to our players every week that they are held to a higher standard than the average student,” Darling said. “We tell them it does not make them better than anybody, but you are watched with a closer eye. We wear our jerseys every Friday. This is a great tradition, but it also puts a lot of focus on your team. We will not be seen as those football players who only care about the field and not the classroom.”

Moving forward, the policy will continue for seasons to come.

Off-field successes translating to the field

In Shattuck’s first season at the helm (2013) Seymour didn’t win a game.

Before Oct. 4, 2014, they Owls hadn’t won a game since Oct. 19, 2012.

The program struggled to recruit kids to the team and get underclassmen to stick with the sport.

Numbers dwindled to what was likely an all-time low.

The Owls’ freshman team was disbanded due to a lack of numbers and combined with the junior varsity team after three games in 2014.

In an interview in 2014, Shattuck said, “People have to understand that we’re playing with freshmen and sophomores, and it’s extremely difficult to win varsity football games playing those kinds of kids right now. It will pay off in the long run, and we will really get this thing going from the ground up.”

Shattuck wanted to shift the culture, and believed that doing things the right way — emphasizing classwork, community service and sportsmanship — would translate to wins.

His plan worked.

After the win-less season the Owls finished 2-8 in 2014. The next year, the Owls record finished 5-7.

Then, for the first time since 2005, the Owls finished with a winning record at 8-4 in 2016 on the new turf field.

Participation numbers nearly doubled this season compared to 2013.

Shattuck had 46 players in 2013 with nine seniors. This past season, SHS had 87 players including 19 seniors.

This past year, the Owls had their first winning season since 2005 at 8-4.

At the junior varsity level, the Owls went 6-2 while freshmen had a record of 4-5.

The middle school has also seen a boost. This year’s seventh- and eighth-grade teams each went 5-2.

Outside of the community service, the program started two youth football programs — flag and tackle — that have seen considerable participation.

The coaching staff has demanded the most from themselves and the players, and will continue to for seasons to come at every level.

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Jordan Morey is sports editor at The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at jmorey@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.