Three years ago, Xavius Hager wasn’t focused much on the future. As a ninth-grader, Hager would enter a classroom at E.C. Glass not worried so much about the assignments or tests.
“I wasn’t serious about anything, honestly,” he said.
So the lackluster grades followed.
The final report cards contained a few standout grades. A’s and B’s weren’t completely out of place. But D’s and an F were scattered in, too. As a freshman at the midtown school, Hager’s GPA wasn’t awful, hovering somewhere above 2.0. But Hager didn’t jump off the page as an academic standout.
In three years, though, things have changed. For Hager, definitely, but also for his comrades who take to the turf with him as members of the Hilltoppers varsity football team.
Now, coach Jeff Woody said, his Glass squad is a different team than the one the school fielded when he arrived a few years back. And this year’s accomplishments on the gridiron — the 8-0 record that contains multiple blowouts and matches the best start for a Glass team since 1995 — is the result of the team’s commitment to success off the field as well, he said, starting in the classroom.
“They know what’s expected of them,” Woody said of his players during practice Wednesday, “and the results are there [now].”
In the early stages of Woody’s tenure, E.C. Glass had plenty of work to do. On the field, the 2015 team put together a 1-9 record. Woody and his coaching staff knew things had to change, but real progress would require more than running drills and implementing new plays.
“Since then, we got together as a coaching staff and [asked], ‘What do we need to do to make sure our team gets better?’” Woody explained. “We said the first thing we demand is accountability, and that’s in the classroom, on the football field, and outside of the football field and classroom in society.”
Out of those meetings, Woody added, “The Blueprint” was born. The Hilltoppers would be held to new standards.
Ask any of the players about “The Blueprint,” and they know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the master plan on which the entire program is built, and the standard by which members of the team hold each other accountable.
If they want a chance to play under the lights on Friday nights, they’d have to attend 80% of offseason workouts. And, more importantly, they’d have to get things straight in the classroom and maintain a 2.0 GPA.
In the pre-Blueprint days, Glass players had “no clue” what their GPAs were, Woody said. In response, Woody and his staff started preaching the education gospel.
“I wanted them to get familiar with how important a GPA is. If you want to go somewhere, grades are No. 1. You’ve got to have academics straight,” he said, recalling his original and ongoing message to players. “Your future is more than just what’s in between these lines. Your future also includes the classroom.”
In 2015, Glass sported a 1.9 GPA as a team, which Woody said directly correlated with that disastrous 1-9 record.
But in the years that have followed, players have pulled themselves up to meet The Blueprint standards.
Last year, the group’s GPA sat at 3.1. This year, it’s at 3.51, Woody said, because of the work of players like Hager.
For the senior middle linebacker, that so-so GPA is a thing of a past. Gone are the report cards with D’s. And even the C’s have been kicked off, thanks to Hager’s work ethic, which now has him working through lunches from time to time to get his homework done before the school day ends.
As a junior, Hager made all A’s and B’s. And in his final year of high school, Hager is making all A’s for the first time ever and is on track to fulfill a dream: going to college and becoming the first person in his family to do so.
The senior explained a handful of the lessons he’s come to understand and implement as he traveled the path to academic success, all of which he’s seen play out on the gridiron among his teammates, too.
“It brings confidence to the table,” Hager noted. “It brings responsibility. Shows that you’re respectful.”
Hager’s teammate, fellow senior Chris Vaughan, added to the list.
Working hard in the classroom leads to a mentality of hard work on the field, as well as a renewed sense of focus. Vaughan, a defensive and offensive lineman who has around a 3.6 GPA, added competition plays out both in the classroom and on the turf now, too.
“It’s a competition there, too. In the classroom, you want to get the best grades,” he said.
And all of those lessons have directly led to success on Friday nights and paved the path for a future for the Glass athletes.
The quiet days, when there wasn’t any recruiting noise from college coaches — the days Woody said he felt like he could hear crickets chirping — are over. Now, Woody said, it’s a “hustle” to schedule meetings with college coaches who want to speak with his players, who in the last three seasons have gone a combined 25-10.
Having seen the real results of a better work ethic in the classroom, Glass coaches aren’t the only ones holding players accountable. The players themselves are invested in each other, looking out for one another on the gridiron and off.
“Now,” Vaughan said, “everybody’s on it.”
On Friday, then, when Glass takes on chief rival Heritage at City Stadium at 7 p.m., the Hilltoppers hope they’re just as sharp as they are in the classroom as they aim to keep on winning.
“Winning — and that means in the classroom and that means on this field — is not a sometimes thing. It’s an all the time thing,” Woody said.
“We’ve gotta practice well, we’ve gotta do well in the classroom, and we’ve gotta do well in society.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.