KEEPING THE FAITH: Knights lean into something bigger than football

Members of the Wardlaw Academy football team, along with cheerleaders and a few fans, encircle the King Academy Knights as they all pray together following their intense battle. (Staff photos by Tony Baughman)


Out on Sardis Road, tucked just off the main road between Batesburg and Saluda, the Knights of W.W. King Academy are now 0-4 on the 2019 football season.

Their opening-week foe a month ago, Andrew Jackson Academy, racked up 64 points against the scoreless Knights. Two Fridays later, King’s small, thin band of brothers managed to put 8 points on the scoreboard down in Mount Pleasant, while Palmetto Christian answered with 80. Two weeks ago, Laurens Academy outstripped the Knights 50-6.

Last Friday night, when all was said and done, the final buzzer sounded on another loss, 48-0 at the hands of the archrival Patriots of Wardlaw Academy. Following the traditional and familiar parade of post-game handshakes, both teams – the victors from Johnston and the thus-far-winless hosts – knelt together at midfield and prayed humbly to the very same God.

That’s how private school football is done in rural Saluda County.

“It is rival game between King and Wardlaw, but most of these guys are gonna go hunting and fishing together on Saturdays and Sundays,” said visiting Wardlaw coach Mark Rodgers. “Me and Coach Zach (Matthews) are very good friends, and we do stuff together. So, it’s like family coming together.”

For four quarters, of course, it was an all-out family feud down on the field. Shoulder pads popped. Helmets crashed. Tempers occasionally flared.

Wardlaw had traveled 18 miles of rough road, past wide open fields encircled by split-rail fencing and thick stands of longleaf pines, to conquer King’s little patch of football real estate out in the woods. The Patriots were fresh off a 64-8 thrashing of Newberry Academy the week before and a 58-0 road whipping of North Charleston’s Cathedral Academy two weeks earlier.

From the opening kickoff, there was very little doubt a similar fate would befall King Academy, which finished last season with a single win in nine outings, but there was absolutely no doubt the post-game ceremonies would end on bended knees.

“At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – our Lord and Savior giving us this opportunity,” said Coach Matthews, who also serves as headmaster at King Academy. “If it wasn’t for Him, we wouldn’t be out here playing this game.”

For the past seven seasons with Coach Matthews at the helm, every football Friday night has ended with the Knights in prayer. Very often, they are joined in their mid-field reverence by their opponents, the visiting coaches and quite often, family and friends.

“Whether it’s a home game or an away game, I can’t think of a time we haven’t done that,” Coach Matthews said. “Being Wardlaw, a team that’s this close by, everybody calls it the rivalry game. But at the end of the day, as soon as we got done with our prayer, Coach Rodgers came up and put his arm around me. He’s just a true friend of mine. Everybody knows everybody, and that’s what’s so special about our two teams.”

With the degree to which defeat has found the Knights so far in 2019, it would be easy for a group of young men to get discouraged, to slip into self-pity, doom and gloom. But that’s not how things work at King Academy.

“I’m proud of our guys. The scoreboard doesn’t really reveal who we are,” Coach Matthews said. “We just don’t quit, and I’m proud of them for that. I’ve been telling them, just control what you can control. That’s all we can do.”

That outlook – giving your best, both as students and athletes, and leaving the rest up to the Lord’s will – is an essential part of the culture at King Academy. While many public schools across the country find themselves under siege by atheists and agnostics when God and faith are mentioned in the same breath as science and English literature, such synergy is not only accepted but expected in the hallways and classrooms at King.

“As our mission statement starts out: spiritually, academically, athletically in that order,” Coach Matthews said. “Every day, devotion in homeroom before our classes start. Every Friday, our football and cheerleaders go down to our lower school and do a devotion for our pre-K through 5th grade. That’s something we’re proud of. That’s something we base our school upon. That’s what runs what we do.”

When the convivial prayer circle with Wardlaw Academy broke up last Friday night after the schools’ hard-knock competition and the two squads slipped off to their respective huddles for the coaches’ post-game speeches, the comfortable air of family and community lingered over the field.

“You got to thank the Man Upstairs for giving you the next breath,” Coach Rodgers said after congratulating his hard-charging Patriots. “Today’s the present, tomorrow’s the future. Take care of your present. With everything going on in our country today, we’ve probably as a country gotten away from what made us.”

Downfield at the goal line, Coach — and headmaster — Matthews once again reminded his King Academy Knights, who face another tough road test next at Blackville’s Jefferson Davis Academy, that the numbers on the scoreboard simply don’t define their worth as young men, as a team and as children of God.

“If we can instill that in our students here, then we’ve done our job,” he said.

Story by Tony Baughman / Posted October 3, 2019