MADISON, Fla. -- Frankie Carroll doesn't mind the glad-handing, even if his lunch is cooling off. He's not politicking but working the room as a head football coach.
Between bites of pulled pork at Ken's Bar-B-Q, a local eatery on Highway 90 and hotspot for Madison County High football, Carroll is chit-chatting with the locals, the same ones who loyally follow their beloved Madison County Cowboys, Florida's defending Class 2A state champions.
In small-town America, the football coach is a highly-visible member of the community.
"Wherever you go, someone will talk football," said Carroll, who took over the program in 2002. " I don't mind it. They [the people] love football and they all know the players especially the young kids.
"The players are their heroes; the young kids think of them as the real deal."
The town of 3,195 is county seat of Madison County, less than 45 minutes east of Tallahassee just off Interstate 10. Madison County is located along the Bible Belt, where Christian fundamentalists thrive.
In May, there's a buzz in the air along with footballs. That's because high school spring football is in full swing. It's a three-week stretch that includes visiting college coaches, three-hour practices, weight training and a May 24 exhibition game against Bayside High of Palm Bay.
Last week, Southern California's Pete Carroll and his staff were side by side with Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Alabama's Nick Saban.
Madison County is considered one of Florida's top returning teams in 2008, stoked by 17 starters (eight offensive, nine defensive) playing in third-smallest of eight classifications.
To a player, the remoteness of Madison or the size of the school is never an issue.
The Cowboys' mantra is simple: We're a small town with big-time talent.
"Most people think because we're [a] small [town] we don't play at a high level," said Cortez Akins, a defensive back drawing interest from Big East schools.
To the contrary, at least eight players from the Madison County's Class of 2009 will sign with major programs. Defensive lineman Jacobbi McDaniel and 5-8, 180-pound running back Chris Thompson have already verbally committed to Florida State.
At 6-1, 278 pounds, McDaniel isn't the biggest prospect, but according to his ESPN's Scouts Inc. evaluation he, "overcomes his size deficiencies by routinely winning the leverage battle. Has good lateral quickness and is active with his hands. Shoots his hands coming out of his stance and is very violent in his use of them. He can shed and pursue."
He'll also play in the Under Armour High School All-American Football Game at Orlando in January.
Thompson, who is also an Under Armour All-American, is the main ball-carrier in the Cowboys' Wing-T offense. Last season he rushed for 2,256 yards (averaging 12.1 yards per carry) and scored 33 touchdowns, including 203 yards and two scores, in a 28-7 victory over Tampa Catholic for the 2A championship. He also had returns totaling more than 800 yards. Thompson is an athlete who could play a number of positions at the college level.
Reads his Scouts Inc. evaluation: "Thompson could pose serious matchup problems for defense coordinators at the college level and hurt you in a number of ways. Great skills in the kicking game only add to his upside as a prospect."
McDaniel and Thompson are opposites.
Frankie Carroll said, "Jacobbi is explosive and vocal on and off the field, and Chris [Thompson] is quiet and leads by example but runs with authority."
Springing into action
Spring football is commonplace in hotbeds such as Florida, Texas and California. Springtime is a time for renewal said Carroll.
"There's an excitement amongst the players this year; other years they treat practice like it's drudgery," he said. "Not lately, though."
There are currently 28 rising seniors on the roster. The Cowboys remain the favorite in 2A and aim for a 13th straight District 2 title and third state championship this decade.
Since 2002, Madison County has sent 42 players to college, including 13 in the past two classes.
In three weeks, the Cowboys will endure soaring temperatures, polish up their fundamentals and technique and search for a new quarterback to trigger the run-oriented attack. Candidates include converted wing back Jordan Johnson (who is out until August following shoulder surgery), Kazmon English, Josh Arnold and Kelvin Singletary.
"We don't need a game-breaking quarterback, just one to manage the game," Carroll said.
Donteris Huggins (5-10, 180), a defensive back with interest from Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Carolina and Notre Dame, knows spring is a chance to become "bigger, faster and stronger."
Before the team reconvenes in August, the coaches and seniors will attend a weekend camp for the third straight year in Alabama, looking to build team unity and galvanize leadership.
"This is a special class," Carroll said of the 2009 class. "They are close-knit, possess the intangibles and have a tremendous football I.Q. They challenge each other in practice or in the weight room. They've been this way since ninth grade."
The Cowboys play their home games at Boot Hill, a field lined with two sets of bleachers, which seat 5,000. Crowds approach 15,000 for big games with spectators five deep surrounding the field.
"You can't move if you're watching the game but we [as coaches] sure can hear them yelling to throw the ball," said co-defensive coordinator Bubba Carroll, the coach's son. "There's nothing like playing here."
Boot Hill evokes the cemeteries of the American West in the 19th century. "Some say it's where opponents of the Cowboys go after getting beat," Bubba said.
Actually, in the south end zone there are two marker stones, the brainchild of former coach Bud O'Hara. One stone marks the burial site of several game films, relics from the first eight years of the program (the school opened in 1980), while the other has the names of the players from the 1996 team, the first in school history to qualify for the playoffs. Bubba Carroll played on 1996 squad.
"Coach O'Hara literally buried the fear of losing," Frankie Carroll said. "Before every game, our players touch the stones before running onto the field."
The Cowboys, who went 13-1 last season, open Sept. 5 against North Carolina powerhouse Independence (Charlotte). Independence's two streaks stopped in 2007: most consecutive victories (109, second all-time) and consecutive state titles (seven).
"Independence is a great team but they're coming to Boot Hill," said Quanta Barfield, a hard-hitting senior linebacker who is expected to sign with a mid-major. "This place is a living tradition; we don't get pushed around here."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.