By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
The first time A.J. Lamar crossed paths with Chandler Nelson came at Vinemont High around 2007. Lamar was enjoying the early stages of his first high school football coaching job, while little Chandler — who wasn’t all that little of a fifth- or sixth-grader — served as one of the team’s managers.
Shortly thereafter, Lamar moved on to West Point, and Nelson remained with the Eagles, seemingly bringing this story to a speedy halt — until 2012 at least, when Nelson and his family decided to transfer from Vinemont to West Point.
The move has rekindled a relationship that has certainly paid off for both parties. Lamar, in his fifth year with the Warriors, now has a next-level quality offensive lineman at his disposal, while Nelson received a fresh start at a Class 5A program in a town that has welcomed him with open arms.
“I love everybody out here. They want to see me succeed. They want to see me go to college,” Nelson said. “They’re not throwing me down or saying you can’t do it. The whole community is behind me. Everybody’s got my back.”
For Lamar, the addition of Nelson has been a “Godsend.”
“Besides football, he’s a great Christian leader in the classroom and locker room,” the coach said. “He’s been a great example, getting in there lifting weights and leading in other ways. I honestly don’t think you can find a better senior young man than him.”
Not long into his first season at West Point, Nelson experienced somewhat of a culture shock. The then-junior had never heard of any other schools that threw a parade for homecoming — which he referred to as “craziness ... and I love it.”
Additionally, Nelson hadn’t been prepared for such a steep transition to playing football in a higher classification. Sure, the difference between 3A and 5A is just two levels, but the college prospect said between the speed of the game and quality of opponents, it’s “black and white.”
“To me, it’s like playing high school to college, what I would think it’d be like,” Nelson said.
In their first year back in a treacherous Region 8, the Warriors finished 3-7, losing by lopsided scores to perennial contenders Hartselle, Muscle Shoals, Cullman, Russellville and Athens along the way. Despite the struggles, the uptick in competition did have its advantages for Nelson, who is dedicating a majority of his summer to impressing college coaches at camps all over the southeast.
“I’m getting to play against Dee Liner, who’s playing in the SEC, and kids who are playing Division I and Division II ball at the highest levels,” Nelson said, referring to the recent Trojan graduate set to head to Auburn in the fall. “That’s not going to hurt me. That can only make me that much better.”
When he hasn’t been working his “second job” as a college recruit, Nelson has been hitting the weight room in preparation of his senior season at West Point. He hasn’t been alone, either, with more than 50 kids showing up to every single summer workout, a rather lofty number compared to the high 30s or mid-40s that’ve been customary throughout Lamar’s tenure.
“We’re in the hardest 5A region in football, without a doubt, and we’re gritting and grinding as hard as any other school is,” Nelson said. “We may not have as many people, but we’re just as hard of working as any school that’s out there.”
The Warriors closed out the spring with a staggering 71 boys on its roster — and only nine are seniors. Nelson has definitely stepped up as an offseason leader, but so too have veterans like Jordan McKenzie, Tristan Dubberly, Joseph Slatton and Zack Tilley.
“We’ve got a good group of young men who want to put West Point football back on the map at the 5A level,” Lamar said. “It’s been done in 4A, but 5A is a different challenge, and those guys are hungry to do the things to get us to the playoffs. I’m really excited about it.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at email@example.com.