A Secret Santa gift helped Adam Sykes laugh about an experience that could have made him cry.
During a season-opening game two years ago, Sykes, then an assistant football coach at Arlington who was named head coach on April 7, was coaching from the press box. He noticed a little boy inch toward the field from the end zone.
Looking closer, Sykes realized that it was his oldest son Landon, who was three at the time.
“I looked up and couldn’t find my wife (Liz Sykes) and of course the game is going on the whole time. The ball was on the other end of the field but I look over and see my father-in-law (Mike Shirey) pushing my youngest son (Dylan) in the stroller. I am just thinking, please don’t run onto the field.”
Landon did. He stopped on the 20-yard line and began to stare at the teams. From his head set, Sykes notified then head coach Chris Wiley.
“I said, ‘Chris this isn’t real funny right now but you are going to have to stop the game.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said you are going to have to call time out and get the ref’s attention. He said ‘Why?’ I said, “Because if you look out there, Landon has just run out on the field. He is on the 20-yard line and standing there looking at everybody.’ He laughed about it. I was embarrassed. We stopped that game. About that time my father-in-law noticed he was out there so he ran out on the field and takes him back.”
Sykes waited until the next morning to tell Liz, who had been at a concession stand during Landon’s gridiron jaunt.
“She thought her dad was taking care of Landon. I think he thought she had our oldest son. So it was a miscommunication deal,” said Sykes. “Everything worked out. People still laugh to this day and tell me they remember when it happened. At the time it was scary. Thank goodness players were at the other end.”
At Christmas, Arlington coaches have a gift swap for fun. Wiley drew Sykes’ name.
“To be funny as a gag gift, he got me a back pack leash. He said, ‘Here you might need this or give it to Liz for the next game,” said Sykes.
Attention to detail and communication are two organizational skills that Sykes will bring as head coach. He has been at the school as an assistant for 10 years.
Wiley, who built the program from the ground up, has entered private business in sales.
“I am always worried about every small detail. I was always an organized person,” said Sykes. “The little things you have to focus on. A lot of people take it for granted and don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes. They think everything falls in place. Communication is everything. You have to be on the same page with coaches and players.”
After being mentored by Wiley, who had a 65-32 record as head coach, led the Tigers to six consecutive playoff appearances and four district titles and to the state quarterfinals in 2014, Sykes said there won’t be many changes.
“There are a few things I would like to do, just try to put my stamp on things. There are a lot of things that he has done, I have grown accustomed to and I think he did the right way. We will keep those things in our program. We are going to play hard, be disciplined and try to play fast on offense,” said Sykes.
Continuing to run the spread offense, a 5-year staple, the Tigers will once again by led by quarterback Tate Kolwyck, who as a freshman threw for more than 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns during the Tigers’ 10-3 season last year.
“He did a great job for us last year. It wasn’t the best-case scenario for our program at the time to move a freshman up. It is something we had to do in order to be successful. There are not many 14-year old kids that can step into 6-A football and have the success that he did, especially the second half of the season. He is very important to our offense and look forward to him doing good things again this year,” said Sykes, 33.
Kolwyck said he learned to handle the pressure performing at a high level of competition. “I give credit to my teammates for keeping me focused. I could not have done it without the support of my coaches, teammates and the community. It was an amazing year and I look forward to this year.”
Seven starters return on offense and three on defense, which will line up in a 4-2-5, directed by defensive
coordinator Andrew Atkins. The Tigers lost “a lot of good leadership,” said Sykes including eight senior starters on defense and four on offense.
“We have a lot of young guys coming up that have talent but they have to develop those tools and not just play but also lead their other teammates on the field.”
The season will be successful if “the kids do their jobs and trust what the coaches are telling them,” said Sykes. “I don’t have personal goals. My goals are for this team and we have already said our main goal is to win a gold ball (state championship). We are not just trying to reach the playoffs and win one or two games. We have been there and have done that. I think the kids are a little hungrier now. They can see that we can play with the best teams in the state on any given night.”
In the TSSAA new playoff format, all 32 6-A schools in the state will make the playoffs this season.
Arlington strong safety Gary Miller, who will be a senior, said he expects “nothing less than last year, actually a lot more. We are going to go farther, worker way harder than last year. We are strong right now. We are getting big and
we are going to speed up.”
Keeping players “hungry” and competitive while not being complacent are other keys to success said Sykes.
“We want kids to compete with each other, in the weight room, on the track, on the field; not say, ‘I was a starter last year and I am going to be a starter next year.’”
The transition from Wiley to Sykes has been smooth.
Defensive tackle Chris Jackson, who will be a junior, said, “He has been coach Wiley’s right hand man. Anything he asked, he did. He is not going to miss anything. It’s been great. Coach Sykes is taking steps in stride, Nothing has changed at all. We are going to be just as good as were last year, it not better. We are working hard in the weight room and on the field.”
Said Kolwyck, “He continued where coach Wiley left off. I think coach Sykes will bring excitement and knowledge this year. Everyone is excited to have him as head coach.”
Continuing the tradition that Wiley started is the “biggest thing” I am going to have to worry about doing said Sykes, who has been with the program since 2005, a year after Wiley started it.
Sykes has coached receivers, quarterbacks, defensive backs, running backs, offensive line and the last four years has been the offensive coordinator.
Sykes’ best football experience was playing for his father David Sykes at Washington School in Greenville, Miss.
“My high school career playing under my dad was something not a lot of kids get to do. I enjoyed it. I learned a ton. I learned how to do things right, what not to do. He will give me pointers whenever I need them. That was overall my best experience even though winning a national championship in college (at Delta State) can be pretty special.”
Coaching for more than 30 years, Sykes is now head coach at Jackson (Miss.) Academy where he has been the last five years. The first three, he led them to state championships.
Delta State recruited Adam Sykes to play quarterback which he did in high school. After a redshirt first season, he was moved to safety and receiver.
Describing himself as an “introvert,” Sykes said that while he has no desire to be the center of attention, the job will demand it.
“I will be fine with those things but naturally I am more of an observer.”
He has learned there are different ways to coach.
“I am not an in-your-face screamer. I am more laid back in that sense. Certain kids react to different things. You can’t yell at one kid the same way you yell at another because they take it differently with their personalities. I have learned you can’t coach all kids the same way. A lot of people associate a head coach as being a yeller and a screamer, a tough guy, an intimidator. I don’t go about it that way. Even in college, I was a leader by example. I wasn’t a guy yelling at people, trying to get them to do their job. I had to show them how to do it. I take that same deal into coaching,” he said.
“Everybody thinks coaches are one way—loud, tough, cursers, bullies. That is the moniker a lot of coaches get. A lot of people don’t realize there are different personalities. There are different ways to get things done. I think that is one of the biggest things, (I am not trying to) break the mold, but separate myself from the mold.”
Seeing his players buy-into what he is trying to teach them is fulfilling, he said.
“Like the old saying goes, they will do anything for you if they respect you. You see them grow from where they come into the program as a ninth grader to when they graduate and walk off the field for the last time. I love seeing kids coming into the program as an average athlete and they leave here with a respect of coaches, respect of their family. For the most part, they know how to treat people.”
What Sykes would want his players to say about him is that, “I respect them. That I love them and I care about them.
That they can come back whenever they need to to talk good things in life, bad things in life. I think that is the biggest thing you can leave, knowing you affected a lot of young men and raise them from boys for the most part to men.”
Miller said, “Coach Sykes is motivating. He wants everything done perfectly and strictly and on time, everything 110 percent all the time. I have grown as a person, as a player, as a man. Coach is teaching us all types of things in life such as being on time and taking accountability which you have to do.”
Jackson said, “He (Sykes) has taught me how to be a man and own up for my responsibility and if I mess up admit my
mistake and learn from it.”
While it’s great Sykes said to find “that rare athlete, finding the kid that is in it for the right reason, that is coachable and is going to listen to do what you want him to do, goes a long way in building your team.”
As Arlington added grades each year, in 2008 the team went 1-9.
“I think everybody coaching-wise, community wise were thinking, what is going on? We decided to make some wholesale changes.”
The Tigers put into place a new offense and a “new mentality” and went 10-0 in 2009’s regular season. “That 1-9 year taught us a lot as far as humility and things we could do better.”
Sykes’ worst ordeal as a coach came when one of his players, Corbin Christensen, a receiver on offense and a safety on defense, died in a motor vehicle accident on Jan. 13, 2007.
“I had never been around that at all or gone through that, having to deal with not just your emotions, but deal with other adults’ emotions and, more importantly, seeing those kids that were his peers deal with it. It affected everybody in the community. To this day, we don’t give out his number that he wore. We don’t let anybody wear the number 12 as a sign of respect.”
Faith got Sykes through the tragedy. The Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is something he admittedly falls back on.
Growing up in Trinity United Methodist Church in Greenville, his parents nurtured his faith.
“It is something we have grown up on and we base all our family values off that,” he noted.
Faith helped him through the interview process for head coach. He was named interim head coach when Wiley left in February.
“It was a long process. Your mind tries to play tricks on you at times,” he said. “You have to have faith in what you believe. I believe I was the right man for the job and I tried to express that in my interviews and trust that everything that I have been taught since I was a little guy in Sunday School is going to pay off.”
Expressing his faith is “sort of a touchy thing with the world we live in now.”
“You have to be very careful of what you say and what you do. It goes back, I try to carry myself in the right way. The kids know I teach them the right things to do. I hope they respect how I carry myself. I don’t know if you can tell somebody is a Christian by the way they carry themselves,” he said. “I try to give people the benefit of the doubt before I find out a certain situation.
“My mom (Nancy Sykes) taught me that. She will forgive, forgive, forgive and forgive,” he continued. “Sometimes I wonder how she does that so much when someone burns you so many times. Mom has always been very strong in that aspect and you have just got to keep forgiving people.”
Sykes and Liz are members of Collierville First United Methodist Church, where they are involved in Bible study and their children in activities.
“Being together as a family helps you. My wife is very spiritual. It rubs off on me,” he said.
Family has become another team watchword since Sykes became head coach. While they continue to yell “Together We Attack” when they break down huddles, they are now adding breakdown breaths “We Are Family.”
“One thing that has been very special to see this spring with these guys working out, they are really becoming close. They are pushing each other. Kids jumped on board and like saying ‘We Are Family.’ Basically we are in this together, you take care of each other just like family. This is a different type family,” Sykes said. “I think the closer they are, the better they get to know each other, not just the ones they hang out with on the weekend, but every person individually. That is going to pay benefits to us in football and then after football, because you can’t play football forever.”
Said Jackson, “I am ready to get back out there.”
Written by Bill Sorrell, special to the Express.