By Shannon J. Allen/Sand Mountain Reporter
It seems appropriate the signing ceremony for Ryan McElrath, a 2012 graduate of Sardis High School, took place on a Sunday afternoon.
McElrath, who is a preacher, sought God’s guidance through prayer and fasting as he made known his desire to play college football.
A milk lover, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound lineman gave up his favorite drink during the recruiting process.
McElrath’s faith was rewarded with a scholarship to the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., an NAIA program that competes in the Mid-South Conference.
Family, friends and some of his Sardis coaches and teammates supported McElrath during the June 2 ceremony in the Lions field house.
“I got pretty nervous because it was coming down to the line, and it seemed like I was running out of time to sign anywhere,” McElrath said. “I really wanted some guidance from the Lord, and through prayer and fasting I knew I was going to get my answer. Fasting food ain’t that big of a deal to me. I can do that all day long. But something I really care about, something I really love, is milk, and every time I go to the fridge I’ve got to get a glass. I just said, ‘Lord, I’ll lift this up to you. You can have that. I won’t drink milk until I get an answer.’”
Soon after McElrath gave up milk, the University of the Cumberlands contacted him and began recruiting him.
“Everything started working out,” McElrath said. “I told the Lord I wasn’t going to drink milk until I signed. (Sardis) Coach (Gene Hill) kept putting this signing party off and made me a little more irritated every day, but it was fine and I made it through.”
McElrath didn’t drink milk for about five months. He made the Class 3A, All-Region 7 and All-Etowah County teams for the 2011 season and was selected as Sardis’ top defensive lineman. Hill said the Patriots became interested in McElrath after receiving his video highlights from the Lions staff.
“It’s a great school,” Hill said. “Anytime a kid gets an opportunity to keep playing football — and on top of that get an education — you’re proud for him. Not many kids get this opportunity, and I know this was a goal of his. We’re really proud of him. They play a 3-5 (defense), and Ryan will be a combination of defensive end, defensive tackle, which I think is a perfect fit for him. The coaches were excited about getting him because they needed some help at that position.”
McElrath described the opportunity at the University of the Cumberlands as “a real blessing.”
“I answered the call to preach when I was 17, and I was torn between the craving of wanting to be behind the pulpit and the craving of wanting to be on the field playing,” McElrath said. “I’ve always wanted to play football, but when I answered the call to preach, I really wanted to preach and get into the ministry.
“I was torn between going to a seminary school and getting my degree in religion, or going to play football. The Lord just sent me Cumberland. They’re actually a Baptist seminary school. I’m going to get my degree in religion there, and I’m going to have the chance to play on a championship team.”
From 2007-10, the Patriots won four consecutive division titles and advanced to the NAIA playoffs each season. Their head coach is John Bland, who enters his seventh season with a record of 47-18.
“We started Ryan out on offense the first part of the year and then we needed some help on defense, and he came over there and stepped right in and did everything we asked him to do,” Hill said. “Mac is more of a vocal leader. He’s going to speak up and you need some of those, and you need some quiet leaders too. His leadership is going to be greatly missed here. Not only is he a good football player, but he’s a great leader and great kid too.”
McElrath was pleased when Hill moved him to defense last season.
“I started out playing offense, and I think three games into it they decided to put me on defense too, so I played both ways. I started both ways the rest of the season,” McElrath said. “It worked out to where I got to play defense, and that was my dream anyway. I love playing defense.
“They (Cumberlands) see a lot of potential in me. They said they’re not very deep at defensive end. Their two starting defensive ends, one weighs 270 and one weighs 250, and here I am just 230, but I’ve got all summer to gain some weight. And since I’ve got milk back, maybe that will be a little easier.
“They made it sound like I’ve got a chance to play. Even if I don’t start on the varsity, I know they have a JV squad I’ll get to play some on.”
McElrath’s performance as a senior contributed to one of Sardis’ best seasons in school history.
The Lions finished 9-2, the most wins for a Sardis team since the 1988 club went 11-1. Sardis posted a perfect 8-0 record in region play to win its first outright region title. It was also the Lions’ first unbeaten mark in region competition.
“At the beginning of the season, everybody told me you need to move, you need to find somewhere else who’s already good because there’s no way, with y’all getting a new head coach, y’all are going to be any kind of success,” McElrath said. “Y’all might win four games this time, and they were saying you’ll be lucky if you get that. But I stuck with it. Me and my seniors, we decided we were going to win, and it wasn’t just the seniors, the juniors all the way down to the freshmen, everybody wanted to win. And on top of that, we were blessed with a good head coach who knew what he was doing. There were a lot of memories made. We were really happy to be the first region champions, and that’s something nobody can take away from us.”
McElrath is Hill’s first college signee at Sardis, and the coach hopes there are more Lions who follow in the big lineman’s footsteps.
“I hope these kids realize they’ve got an opportunity if they put the work in and keep the grades,” Hill said. “That’s a big thing nowadays, especially the type schools that were looking at Mac, is the grades.”