As I make my way inside the fieldhouse at Driver Stadium, I move through the weight room with music pounding as players work out in front of floor to ceiling windows that overlook the million dollar turf field.
It would be an impressive view for a college team, let alone for a high school. It’s the kind of view that makes one proud to be a Rocket.
It’s nearing the end of July and with students not back in school yet, there is a laid back and calm vibe as I make my way downstairs to the office of Athletic Director and Head Football Coach, Chad Eads. Assistant Coaches, like William Eads, son of the Head Coach are roaming about along with team helpers and managers and Coach Eads’ grandson.
All move in and out of the office of the Head Coach is the ease and style of a group who know their Head Coach likes to hear from and talk to everyone. Coach Eads says he tells his players that the door to his office has never been closed.
This calm and laid back style seem to suit a man nearing 30 years of coaching and entering his 5th year as the GHS Head Coach. Eads began 6-6 his first year in Gardendale, but progressed each year, finishing last season at 10-3 with a nice playoff run.
A new region is now ahead for the Gardendale Rockets and we sit down with Coach Eads in a wide-ranging interview that touches on his time in Gardendale and the state of Gardendale Football.
The GHS Fieldhouse needed some work when Eads took over in 2018. Downstairs, the room has houses the Rocket Assistant Coaches and the tiny, separate office of the head coach were old and in need of renovation. It fell to Eads and volunteers to give them some new energy. “The church helps us some. Dee Allen loves to build cabinets and he and I built the cabinets down here.” The room is now freshy painted with the new cabinets around the perimeter of the room. Eads says it is good for when visiting college recruiters come in to visit so they can see the level of care his program gives to its surroundings.
Eads came from Hoover High School where games were played at the Hoover Met. It is owned and maintained by the City of Hoover, so painting, maintenance and general upkeep were not anything the football program worried about.
It’s a different situation at GHS , but Eads says he appreciates what the county and city do for the program. He says he has grown comfortable with the projects that need attention, because he is a tinkerer. “The two things I love to do are tinker around in my garage and coach football. Our fieldhouse is like my garage.”
The City of Gardendale has helped with the program on a number of projects, including paying for half of the 1 million dollar turf field at Driver Stadium. “The city has been able to help with things both athletically and academically. Students, whether they are an athlete or not, the stadium is a rallying thing for them and the football program is too. Whether you play sports or not, you want your football team to be winning while you are in school, that’s a big thing. It made an impact on me when I first came here of how much our students loved our stadium.”
While some believe the stadium needs major renovation, Eads feels there are some natural advantages to the stadium as it was built. “I have had people tell me we ought to tear it down and build a new one, but our stadium is different than everybody else’s.
Driver Stadium was built decades ago by a group of locals that wanted to give the Gardendale community and the students a special place to gather. Eads clearly loves the history and story behind the stadium. “It’s a neat story. It was built by a bunch of dads in the 60’s and it’s a unique stadium.”
Opposing coaches are well aware of the natural advantages of Driver Stadium and the challenges to playing the Rockets there. Eads says he has been told people don’t like to coming to play at the stadium “because it’s down in a hole and our students are loud and with the light being LED and on field level, it’s like being on a stage it’s so lit up.”
High school football has changed over the last few years. In many ways, the successful programs are beginning to mirror what happens in college football. Player recruiting, enhanced facilities, weight rooms, player graphics, marketing and player videos have all turned high school football into more of a business. But Eads says the difference between some programs, like the one he came from in Hoover, and other programs is not a win at all costs, but in the expectation to win. There are “expectations from little league all the way up. It’s not a win at all costs even though people have that perception of OTM (Over the Mountain). The expectation is to win.”
Changing the culture at GHS was what Eads began working on when he took control of the program in 2018. He let the players know that “on Sunday through Thursday we want to be in here to work hard and teach them, but on Friday night our goal is to win.”
Eads feels that the will to win begins with the player and the moment he realizes that he has teammates that are counting on him to do his job. Eads doesn’t believe that coaches make players tough, but it’s putting players in a position so that they can realize themselves that they are tough. “Some haven’t been on the field and it’s 98 degrees and the coach is made at them and they have to do it again. To Eads, that is a key transformation for a player. It can be a tough transformation and learning experience. That’s when a coach may have to take a player to the side one-on-one and let them know they are being depended on. Eads says those conversations are about commitment. “You came in here and said you wanted to play football and I took that to mean that you want to do all the things a football player does. You can’t be ‘oh, I want to play football only on Friday nights or just during football season. Playing football means year-round. That means we come up here on Sunday nights. That means we practice when we don’t feel like it. That’s what you signed up for.”
Eads also encourages players to play multiple sports and he believes his program’s weight training is an important component into student-athletes being able to hold up to the physical demand of moving between sports, like football to baseball. “You have to train your body to hold up. For us to get deep into the playoffs, we will have to beat Pinson and Clay and probably Oxford and those are back-to-back-to-back weeks. You have 15 weeks of that and your body has to be able to hold up.”
High school players are bigger and stronger today and Eads says the GHS offensive line will average 270 pounds. “That’s a high school offensive line now.”
The Rocket offensive line that Eads believes was one of the better lines in 6A last season will have to replace some key seniors. “They are younger, but equally as talented and will get better as the season goes along.”