MILTON, Ga. — In a rented out banquet hall of a hotel in Philadelphia, Gary Sylvestri fights back emotions.
He’s surrounded by more than 100 high school football players, coaches and staff members several hours before noon. The athletic director has eaten his bacon and eggs and is now sitting in his chair, soaking in the moment that’s unfolding before him.
Sylvestri listens to Milton football players and coaches give testimonies about their lives — their struggles, passions and appreciation. One-by-one a player thanks his teammate and talks about what they love about being a part of this program. A coach then stands up and brags on his co-worker, thanking him for helping study game film and putting the equipment away earlier in the week. Head coach Adam Clack takes the floor, gives a word of encouragement before reminding his team of why they’re 800 miles from home.
Tears are shed and laughs are shared.
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It’s Saturday, September 11, 2021. The Milton Eagles football team is down the road from St. Joseph’s Prep, the opponent they’ll line up against in a few hours.
The special moment of sharing trials and triumphs lasts around an hour. Nearly 30 people speak. It occurs in the same room that about 12 hours ago the team went through a walkthrough, preparing to face a St. Joseph’s team that was ranked No. 13 in the nation.
It’s not lost on the coaches and Sylvestri that kickoff is hours away, but being in Philadelphia is about more than playing a football game. The time will come to focus on the Xs and Os, but for now, the attention is on each other.
These types of “road trips” have become the norm for a football program that prior to Clack’s arrival in 2017 managed a total of three playoff wins in its 67-year history. Milton has hosted or traveled to play teams from California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia since 2018.
It’s a different program than it was when Sylvestri took over as AD in 2010. They’ve won four straight region championships and a state championship. Their players are getting recruited and signing with the top college programs in the country each year.
And at that breakfast in Philadelphia last year, the longtime athletic director turned to his wife and said that it was a different team.
“I got goosebumps,” Sylvestri said. “They were connecting to each other. They were talking about how his teammate rallied around me at this point in his life. This coach did this for me here. You sit there and just know that it’s special.”
I: ‘Here comes the Mpire’
For more than 60 years, Milton’s best season was 1952. The Eagles defeated rival Roswell, finished the regular season 10-0 and won their first region championship.
That was the last time Milton reached double-digit wins until 2014, when head coach Howie DeCristofaro led them to a region title and just their second playoff victory in school history. They lost by a touchdown in the state quarterfinals to eventual state champion Colquitt County.
Still though, despite the success of one outlier season, Sylvestri felt there was more to be done to get Milton to the level he wanted.
Sylvestri came to Milton as a football coach before becoming athletic director. He came with decades of coaching experience in Florida. He carried with him a vision.
“(Milton was) good at basketball at the time, baseball was pretty successful as was lacrosse, but there was no real branding of the school,” Sylvestri said. “The school has been around since 1921 and there was no real history or legacy. My job when I came in here was to brand our school and then make it nationally relevant in more than one sport.”
At practice one day, former Milton running back Treyvon Paulk made a suggestion to Sylvestri that changed the next 10 years of Milton athletics. Playing off of Sylvestri’s upbringing in Florida, Paulk suggested they call themselves the M, like Miami going by simply the U.
Sylvestri’s mind churned out possibilities they could use: Mpire, Mpact, Mpower, Mbrace.
“We ran with it,” Sylvestri said. “Everywhere we’d go people would be like ‘Here comes the Mpire.’ That was the biggest compliment because they were buying into our brand.”
There was buy-in across the athletic department, which resulted in success when it mattered most. The baseball team won a state championship, the boy’s basketball team returned to the final four, the girl’s lacrosse team continued to dominate the southeast and the football team went to the elite eight in 2014.
Academically, Milton is one of the top public schools in the state. The fine arts department has won state and national awards for decades. The girls lacrosse team is one of the most dominant and winningest high school lacrosse teams in the U.S. Sylvestri calls Milton a “triple A” school — arts, academics and athletics — because all three aspects are good.
But if anything, that tradition of accomplishment put more pressure on the programs that weren’t achieving the level of winning others were.
So what was the answer to bring the football program to the level it needed to be?
Sylvestri turned to Adam Clack.
“I always saw a team that was so close and I wanted to see if I could put a plan together that could get them to that next step,” said Clack, who was hired at Milton ahead of the 2017 football season. “You look up and see a girls lacrosse team that’s a dynasty, there’s a basketball team that’s won, a baseball team that’s won and football had just been waiting on that extra push. When we got here, there’d been just (2) region championships in 60 years.”
In the six years prior to being named head coach at Milton, Clack was at nearby West Forsyth, first as a position coach and then a head coach from 2014-2016. He went 3-0 against Milton during his time with the Wolverines, but always kept an eye on the Eagles, making note of the potential waiting to be tapped into in North Fulton.
One of the first things Clack at Milton was change the definition of success.
His first season, Milton beat in-town rivals Alpharetta, Cambridge and Roswell by a combined score of 95-22. The community celebrated, the parents cheered and players were satisfied by being kings of North Fulton. By Clack’s standards though, the season was a loss because they failed to win the region and lost in the second round of the playoffs.
“One thing that really bothered me about the Roswell, Alpharetta and Cambridge wins was because those weren’t region wins,” Clack said. “I always struggled with that. Our goal isn’t to be 10-0. Our goal is to play our best ball when it matters most and that’s the art of peaking.”
Still, he and the coaches understood the weight those rivalry games held. It was up to Clack and his coaches to balance beating rivals for the sake of the community and history, but not losing focus on winning region games and being in the best position for the state playoffs.
“It’s easy to put a lot of stock in a single game,” said Ben Reaves, who served as offensive coordinator under Clack before taking over as head coach this offseason. “Those (rivalry) games weren’t region games. In the grand scheme of things, they didn’t matter to our season, but they were the super bowl around here.”
Getting players to believe that there were bigger goals to achieve beyond winning against Roswell and Alpharetta wasn’t an overnight flip. But when it happened, the Eagles never looked back.
Instead they looked toward a state championship.
II: ‘We didn’t want to screw this up’
As important as winning the rivalry games was, Clack, Reaves and Sylvestri all agree that a 24-22 loss to Roswell was the best thing that happened to the 2018 Milton team.
The season began with victory against No. 3 Archer in the Corky Kell Classic followed by a tough road win at Alpharetta.
Then came the Freedom Bowl, a nationwide high school football showcase that Clack and Sylvestri fought hard to get on Milton’s campus.
“It brings in good out-of-state talent, it’s a way to get us in the media, get our program out there and it has things tied back to service and leadership,” Clack said of the Freedom Bowl. “I don’t think they thought they were coming here, but (Sylvestri) wasn’t going to let them go anywhere else. They wanted to go to Buford, GAC or other places they were courting, but we courted them. Now in comes Cardinal Gibbons, a Top 25 team in the nation.”
Accompanying one of the top teams in Florida was a Netflix documentary crew that was filming Cardinal Gibbons’ quarterback.
“(They) got off the bus and they just looked like a college football team,” Reaves said. “They’re literally laughing at us, like ‘this is who we’re supposed to play?’ The coaches were nonchalant and joking. We played one of the best games we’ve ever played. We beat them 42-17.”
With two marquee victories and a rivalry win, the Eagles were feeling good. They practiced differently, didn’t work out as hard and there was a sense of complacency.
Roswell showed them that the job wasn’t done.
Milton lost the next game to Parkview before blowing through region play to win their first trophy of the Clack era.
“Six guys were playing new positions on defense,” Clack said. “We gave up 30 points in the first half to Parkview that week. Our goal wasn’t to beat Parkview. Our goal was to beat Colquitt in the state championship game and this was the defense that would eventually get there.”
The wins continued to pile up in the playoffs and after a 20-19 win at Hillgrove in the rain, thoughts of winning a state championship seeped in. A week later with a 28-0 halftime lead against Lowndes, preparations started going into motion.
The opponent in Milton’s first-ever state championship appearance? 14-0 Colquitt County. Reaves said he and Clack stared at a blank white board for a couple hours when thinking of how to prepare for the Packers because of how much talent they had.
“Not only were they one of the best teams in the state, scoring at will, supposedly they were the best team in Colquitt history, but you also have the thoughts creeping in that we may never get here again,” Reaves said. “We didn’t want to screw this up.”
Snow storms across north Georgia delayed the championship and gave Milton three extra days to prepare.
It was a close, low scoring affair that ended with Milton running out the final minute and celebrating a 14-13 7A state championship.
“I’d much rather be 10-5 than 11-1 because that means that we got to that final game,” Clack said.
The game before the 7A title was the 5A game between Blessed Trinity, whose campus is just down the road from Milton, and Cartersvillle. BT won and many of the fans stayed in their seats to support their neighbors.
It made the victory much more meaningful and gave Sylvestri a glimpse of what the win meant for the community that he’d called home for nearly a decade.
“In 2018 when the coaches and players were on the stage accepting the trophy, there were 10,000 Milton fans there cheering us on,” Sylvestri said. “The state championship was huge because it put the city of Milton on the map in Georgia. They shut down the streets for us, it was like a South Georgia feel, right?”
III: ‘It’s the standard’
During football games, Sylvestri still paces the sidelines. He watches the coaching staff interact with players. He spends the first quarter talking with the parents and alumni in the end zone. He takes mental notes of things he wants to talk with Clack about in their Saturday briefing.
In the last five years, he’s also welcomed recruiting coordinators and coaches from some of the best college football programs. Talent coming from Milton wasn’t a new concept. In the 2016, ’17 and ’18 classes, there were two Wake Forest signees, a UGA signee in offensive tackle Blake Watson, a couple Group of 5 recruits and several FCS prospects.
Back then, whether on his personal twitter or the team’s twitter, Sylvestri made a big deal about coaches visiting. He’d post videos of helicopters landing on their field or share personal thank yous for each coach that came through the door.
Now, with 140 coaches visiting campus this spring, not so much.
“We’ll welcome them, I’ll shake their hand and walk away,” Sylvestri said. “I think it was important to do that then, when coach (Clack) first got here. But there came a point in time when we were beyond that, not that we’re above that or better than that, we are just beyond that right now. It’s important. That’s where we’re at now.”
From the 2018 state championship team, there were two players that signed with Clemson, two with Georgia Tech, and Michigan State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech signees. Then defensive lineman Lebbeus “LT” Overton, who was a freshman in 2019 reclassified to the 2022 recruiting class and signed with Texas A&M as the No. 18-rated player in the nation, per 247Sports.
The success in recruiting comes from a mixture of talent and exposure, which is something Clack lobbied for from day one. Getting Milton involved in events like the Corky Kell and Freedom Bowl was important to play against top talent and with media exposure. The other component was giving them out-of-state experiences that went beyond football.
“I didn’t have to leave the area to play good teams, that’s only a factor of it,” Clack said. “Taking a Milton kid to Birmingham, Tallahassee or Dutch Fork to play doesn’t move the needle. Telling the kid that we’re going to be the first Georgia team to go to California, we’re going to have a walkthrough on Venice Beach and put a kid on an airplane for the first time. The guy that doesn’t see the field at all is going to have an experience out of that trip that he’ll never forget.”
Experiences like breakfast in Philadelphia.
“That was one of coach’s ways of experience that you can’t get in the cafeteria here,” Sylvestri said. “You need to do something away from here, maybe in a city that you’ll never get to again in your entire life.”
For a couple years after winning the state championship, Clack feared that year may have been a fluke. Those have been done before: a team gets hot and catches enough breaks to win it all.
But a 27-1 record in region play, four-straight trips to at least the second round, two state championship appearances shows that maybe 2018 wasn’t a fluke.
“There is definitely a new level of respect and expectations for Milton,” Reaves said. “The kids know if you play football at Milton High School, it’s different. You know you’re going to play a national schedule. You’re going to be in the national spotlight. There is going to be a lot on your plate. There’s several division 1 guys that are in your position group. But it doesn’t catch anybody off guard. It’s just what we’ve built and it’s the standard.”
Now a new phase has begun, with Clack taking a step back and giving Reaves the reins of the program. Clack said it’s the right time for him and his family. New coaching hires have followed, including former UGA wide receiver Terrence Edwards.
Change brings some excitement and nervousness among the community.
“Even if Clack had stayed for another year, that was a really good senior class that is graduating,” said Zach Shugan, a 2015 Milton graduate who now covers the team as a freelancer. “It’ll be interesting to see where Milton goes next. It’s always tough when you make a change like that.”
It’s not the first time Sylvestri and the Mpire will be challenged, and it probably won’t be the last.
Continuing to take on challenges is exactly what they want.
“It’s like a tapestry,” Sylvestri said. “The front is beautiful, but the back is full of 45 knots. That was me in the back just changing the knots, and I like it that way.”
McClain Baxley is a recruiting reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald and the USA TODAY Network. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @mcclainbaxley.