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Silverbacks leading the way for independent football

Six years ago, Grayson Bledsoe, a student at Providence Academy came to his father and said he wanted to play football.
For Grayson and countless others in the area, the option to play football hasn’t always been available, especially for kids who are homeschooled and those attending schools that don’t offer the sport.
“I told him if he got 11 guys we would try to play,” said Billy Bledsoe, Grayson’s father. Grayson followed through and the independent football team was born.
“At the end of our first week of existence, we had 11 guys on the team,” Bledsoe said. “Of the 11, six had never played a down of football in their life.”
In their fifth season since the program was introduced, the independent team, known now as the Silverbacks, has a roster with more than 50 players on it.
The team also is the most recent champion of the Pioneer Football League after defeating the Carolina Crusaders in the league championship, 22-6.
The victory capped off a season where the Silverbacks finished 12-1 in the regular season.
The Silverbacks have received two citations from the Governor of Tennessee’s office, recognizing them as the only independent team in the state of Tennessee as well as making them ambassadors of the state. A third honor is now expected after their championship win.
“We have been told we’ll be invited to Nashville to be recognized by the state assembly in January,” Bledsoe said.
The PFL invited Tennessee’s only independent football team to become a member a couple of years ago. The conference consists of independent teams in North Carolina and South Carolina, with expansion expected in Virginia and Georgia.
While the Silverbacks experienced a modest beginning, the program has continued to strengthen.
“This was the first year we actually had a home field,” Bledsoe said. “We played all our home games at Dobyns-Bennett. It was a terrific experience for the team. Most (teams) in the PFL don’t have that kind of quality facility.”
In the early years of the program, the Silverbacks didn’t have a quality place to play, either.
“We literally have played and practiced in cow pastures,” Bledsoe said. “We didn’t have lineman sleds so our players pushed 1,500-pound hay bales.”
The unique playing grounds actually helped the team grow in a lot of ways.
“Parents would bring lawn chairs to come out and watch practice,” he said. “At first the lineman couldn’t push those hay bales, but as the practices progressed they began moving them.”
The program is open to players ages 13 to 18 who do not otherwise have the opportunity to play football.
Bledsoe’s philosophy on the game is simple: everybody plays.
“No one sits on the bench,” Bledsoe said. “We spend as much energy on the sideline getting everyone in and not just in the last two minutes of the game.”
With a 55-man roster and a five year age difference from their youngest to oldest player, the Silverbacks have both a varsity and junior varsity team.
Bledsoe acknowledges that the younger players practicing with the older players has helped the development of some of the younger players.
“It definitely makes them better,” he said. “We have to be real careful when we are matching big guys against little guys but it really makes the younger guys better.”
The Silverbacks roster is made up of players from Washington, Greene, Carter, Hawkins, Sullivan and Unicoi counties. A nominal fee is required to play, but Bledsoe says scholarships are available for kids whose families can’t afford the fee.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” he said. “If they want to play, they’ll play.”
The success experienced in past seasons and definitely this season by the Silverbacks can be attributed to the system Bledsoe has established.
“A lot of our older players have been in the program for six years now,” he said. “Some of our guys are as good as some of the better players on public school teams.”
The mindset Bledsoe and his coaches instill in the players has also contributed to the success of the program.
“We pride ourselves on discipline,” Bledsoe said. “We pride ourselves as a Christian football team. We pride ourselves on our behavior on and off the field and this translates into the way we play on the field.”
Bledsoe believes he and his coaching staff are teaching players lessons that they will carry with them far beyond the football field.
“We want these kids to be able to look back one day and say some of the qualities they like best about themselves were learned through playing football,” Bledsoe said.
While Bledsoe sees the interest and success of the independent team as rewarding aspects blooming from just 11 players, he still believes even more can be accomplished.
“In the next few years we hope to have games on the schedule against at least three public schools,” Bledsoe said. “We feel like we can compete with anybody.”
Bledsoe also says another team might soon be in the works due to the interest and size of the current team.
“We are actually getting in a position that we may have to build another team,” he said. “Independent teams in high school football are experiencing real interest and growth. They give boys who don’t go to a public high school an opportunity against real competition and that’s a great thing.”
For Bledsoe, coaching the team has been a great experience, but being a parent to a Silverbacks player has been even more rewarding.
“It means more to me as a parent than as a coach,” he said. “It is a wonderful experience for me just to be able to do this. As a parent, watching my child along with all the other boys getting to play a game they love and have that opportunity to do so is unreal. I think what we have accomplished speaks for itself. But we give God all the credit.”