Canton High School head coach Calvin Bolton stood in the midst of his team’s celebration last Friday night and basked in the scene. His players hugged and cheered while water flew high into the air from happily flung Gatorade bottles. Fans cheered wildly from the stands and students danced to the sounds of the victory song. His Tigers had just pulled off a 21-14 overtime upset of Germantown High, the first win in school history against cross-county rival. It was a special moment for the players and coaches, but for Bolton it was simply proof of what he has always known.
For nearly 14 seasons as an assistant coach for the Ridgeland Titans, the Independence, Miss., native looked across the field at the other Madison county team. He saw the program as a diamond in the rough and he knew he could make it shine. All he needed was the opportunity.
“Believe it or not, Canton is a dream job for me. I’ve always wanted this job,” Bolton said. “I saw the type of athletes that were here and I knew that with my knowledge and my coaching I could take this thing to new heights.”
It’s easy to see why the former Mississippi Valley State football standout felt this way. The team has traditionally boasted players with size and speed. The school has produced several Division I football players like Damien Lewis, who is entering his second year as the starting right guard for LSU and Demarrio Smith, who is a junior defensive lineman for Southern Miss. Another former Tiger, Daronte Bouldin, played four seasons on the Ole Miss offensive line. Add in the host of former players who have made highlight reels at junior colleges across the state and it seemed the bones of a great program. However, the team could never quite muster success on the field. Before last years 7-6 finish, Canton had not had a winning season since finishing 8-3 in 2007.
Still, Bolton saw what could be so when the position opened in 2009, he applied. However, school officials selected Peter Brown. Brown vacated the position in 2014 and Bolton applied again and even received an interview. That time Daryl Jones was hired. When Jones left the position in 2017, Bolton wasn’t pushing his luck a third time.
“I wasn’t going to revisit Canton anymore. I’d been up for that job two times and it didn’t work out for whatever reason,” he said. “I wasn’t going to pursue it anymore. I was done with it.”
Yet, when the Madison County Superintendent requested a “short list” of potential candidates, Bolton was on it. His initial disinterest spurned out of being twice overlooked for the position was met with a slightly forceful push to accept the interview. Bolton obliged and made the drive from his home in Tampa, Fla., where he had relocated in 2016 after leaving Ridgeland and was the defensive coordinator at Lato High School, to meet with the Superintendent. This time, he was hired.
Said Bolton: “I guess the third time’s the charm.”
Under his leadership, the program has shown steady improvement. In 2017, Bolton’s first year, the team compiled a 5-8 record. Two years later, they are undefeated heading into the fourth game of the season. They visit winless Yazoo City tonight.
He attributes the success to a number of factors. One of which is youth. The Tigers starting offensive line features five new linemen including two sophomores, two juniors and one senior. There are also seven first-year players on defense. The inexperience most would see as a negative, is seen on the Canton sideline as their edge.
“We’re really young, but I think the youth has really helped us because they don’t understand to be afraid,” Bolton saids. “They don’t get scared or caught up in the moment. They just play hard.”
He credits the coaching staff as another major contributor. The nine-man “dream team” is a wealth of experience. Antoine Cash, who played for the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers leads the defense. Ras Bayles, wide receivers coach, is a former McAdams High School head football coach. Carl Roberts, a former Jackson State assistant with more than 40 years of coaching experience, works with the offensive line. There are three more coaches who have been coordinators at other schools before arriving in Canton.
“I have a group of assistants who can really coach football. They really know the game and they are really hard workers. They have made the difference in Canton,” Bolton said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be this successful.”
Like most fledgling programs, Botlon saw an immediate need for a transformation of the team culture. However, the staff approached that change with a different mindset. They set out to build deep and lasting relationships with the young men which they hoped would manifest on the football field.
“If you just love on the kids and show them you care. Then they will be ready to run through a brick wall for you,” Bolton said. “That’s one of the things I try to do here. (We) have built relationships with these players and it has made such a difference.”
They have also worked to change the players mindset about game preparation. There is a renewed focus on the activities off the field which create success on it. Summer and off-season workouts are priority and athletes who participate regularly are rewarded. This past summer, they traveled to Blue Bayou for a day of fun and teambuilding.
“A lot of these kids think football is just a fall sport, but football is a year-round sport,” Bolton said. “That’s one of the things that we are trying to bring here. We are trying to let them know that you work on your craft year round. Then when the season comes, you are prepared. That’s what you’re seeing now.”
Senior linebacker DJ Clanton says there is a definite difference and credits the team’s success to the changes.
“We work hard at practice,” he said. “(It’s) harder, but we’re better.”
“Better” is certainly one way to describe it. The Canton defense has only allowed two second half touchdowns in its first three games and held the Mavericks to only 238 yards of total offense last week. Meanwhile, the offense is averaging 259 yards per game in the air alone. For Bolton, it’s simply a glimpse of what can be.
“I think the sky’s the limit. Due to the fact that we are so young, I think we can be anything that we set our mind to be,” Bolton said. “Plus, we’ve got experience in places that we need. We just try to play every snap like it’s our last. We can go as far as they want to take us.”
The hope is that it takes them into the first week of December.