In early summer this year, local orthodontist Chip Case was in the audience when a football coach from Harding High School addressed the congregation at a southeast Charlotte church.
Sam Greiner, who has a wife and two young daughters, talked about how he brought his homeless quarterback to live with him. He talked about how he dedicated himself to living for his faith on the day eight years ago that his sister, his only sibling, died of a rare bone cancer.
And, most of all, Case heard Harding’s coach talk about his team, about how he wanted to give a group of teenagers a real shot to succeed - on the field and in life.
Greiner, 35, spoke for about 10 minutes, and when he was done, the congregation stood and applauded. By then, Case knew he wanted to help.
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“He wanted to do something good, and he needed all the help he could get,” Case said of Greiner.
Case, a 1973 Olympic High graduate, has spent years as a videographer and photographer at Charlotte Christian School. He attends Knights games and takes photos and videos for the players, and he does the postseason banquet presentation. After hearing the speech, Case told Greiner he’d like to do the same at Harding.
And when he attended the Rams’ practices last summer, Case wasn’t sure what to expect. Since going to the state championship game in 1987, Harding had produced but four winning seasons and had endured 20 seasons with three wins or less. Harding has also had 12 coaches in that span.
But Harding had won five of 12 games in 2016 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The Rams were returning most of their players, including a junior running back who might be the nation’s best player in his class.
Case said he saw a coach who genuinely cared for his players, who was trying to make Harding relevant again. Taking photos and videos every week, Case has watched Harding compile a 11-1 record after Friday’s 17-10 third round home playoff game against Porter Ridge.
The Rams, who will host East Forsyth in a 4A quarterfinal next week, are among the favorites to win their first state title since 1953.
“They’re a good football team,” said Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri, whose national powerhouse is the only team to beat Harding this season, and the Mavericks had to rally to do it. “They’re really physical with great athletes. Coach Greiner has done a great job.”
Through his lens, Case has chronicled the Rams’ magical season. This is some of what he saw.
The difference a meal can make
Every Friday during football season, Greiner loads up an activities bus to take his team from the west side of Charlotte to Central Church of God, a large, 40-year-old church near SouthPark Mall.
The church feeds Greiner’s team a pregame meal of pasta and salad, but also has live Christian music and a message from a different speaker each week, once including former Clemson great Perry Tuttle. Greiner has attended Central Church for years, but never really interacted with the church leadership. But when he coached as an assistant at Butler and Vance, those teams always had pregame meals. Harding didn’t have any, and Greiner knew that needed to change.
“Some of these kids barely eat,” he said. “There’s no way I can ask them to exert so much energy if they don’t eat. They didn’t know me at Central. I just went to church there, but one day I opened up and asked.”
So what began as weekly meals grew. Central helped purchase Harding’s uniforms. The church also hosted Harding’s postseason banquet. Greiner was beginning to feel some momentum.
After his first season as coach, in December of 2015, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton visited the school with rapper Ice Cube and actor/comedian Kevin Hart, who were in town to promote a movie. Hart was shocked by the poor condition of Harding’s weight room.
“Hart was bench-pressing with the guys and we had to put a towel down (on the bench),” Greiner said. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, this is where y’all bench?’ And it was bad. There was mold. It was dirty.”
Newton’s foundation donated $7,500 to the school toward a new facility, and Greiner credits Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ athletics director Sue Doran and CMS Health and Physical Education specialist Kim Cooke with helping the Rams secure a new $90,000 weight room.
“With the weight room and with the church,” Greiner said, “we felt like we were building some momentum.”
Harding’s players were also starting to pay attention to the messages they received on Fridays at team meals, Greiner said.
Over the summer, Central asked Greiner to bring some of his players to “Next Generation,” a special program it holds for youth.
Greiner watched his players dance, eat and have a good time. There was an alter call at the end of the event. Greiner said most of his players walked down.
“I knew when that happened,” Greiner said, “that this is more than a football program, but a secondary family. It’s starting to click now. They want to do more than just see each other in school. They’re starting to go to church together, to Central and to their own churches. It was great to see.”
Getting the star to buy in
Harding’s Quavaris Crouch, who is 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, is ranked by most recruiting services as the nation’s best junior running back. He has nearly 50 college scholarship offers. He said Greiner’s messages of faith and togetherness changed his life.
He said many of the Rams’ players have bought into the team’s motto of “Make Him stand up” with a capital H. The plan is to do something each day that others would be proud of - opening a door for someone, taking out the trash before your parents ask. Crouch said Greiner tells the team: “The simple things mean a lot. They go a long way.”
“I’m not supposed to have all these scholarships with how I grew up, in tough environments,” said Crouch, 17. “People say, ‘You see right, you do right.’ Well, I saw wrong, but I didn’t want to do wrong. That’s where coach came in. He’s like the leader of us and he led me to the Lord a little bit. I was about money and not living right. That’s what I saw, so that’s what I went by.”
Crouch said Greiner told the Rams they could be good, even when they didn’t believe it. Harding was 1-9 in 2014, the year before Greiner took over. Greiner promised the team it wouldn’t go 1-9 again.
They went 1-10 in his first season in 2015.
But Greiner kept pushing. Crouch was surprised Greiner would lift weights with the team, sweating next to them, or how he would give them rides, get them food. He said that made him work harder.
Crouch rushed for nearly 1,000 yards on that 1-10 team as a freshman. He was SoMeck conference offensive player of the year as a sophomore, when he ran for 1,364 yards and 17 touchdowns. Harding was 5-7 and made the playoffs.
This season, Crouch is averaging nearly 11 yards per attempt. He’s rushed for 2,382 yards and 27 touchdowns, both among the top 20 single-season performances in Mecklenburg County history.
He credits those accomplishments to the turnaround, led by his coach.
“It all makes a real big difference,” Crouch said. “We’ve got this lady who sings to us on Fridays at church and gives us the word before we play. Even if some of our kids don’t go to church on Sunday, that’s their church on Friday. We eat good. We don’t have a lot of money.
“Them talking to us, it hits somebody every time. Nobody really knows what somebody else is going through in life. You say something and it hits you. Somebody cares. Somebody really cares.”
The coach and his dream
John Floyd is an assistant principal at Cochrane Middle School, but he was principal at Harding three years ago when he watched Greiner teach physical education and weight training. Floyd, who needed a football coach, thought Greiner would be perfect for the job.
Only Greiner thought he was through with coaching, after a short career at Vance and Butler. He was the father to two young daughters, and after being transferred to Harding he enjoyed going home after school to his family.
“He had this passion for kids,” Floyd said, “not just for sports, but he was very passionate to make sure kids reached their highest heights. He told me about his little girls. I told him I would create a daycare in the press box and put a play pen in my office if I had to. I knew he could get the kids to the next level.”
As soon as Greiner took the job before the start of the 2015 season, Floyd said he knew he had the right guy.
“A lot of football coaches use foul language on the sidelines,” Floyd said. “His approach is not that way. The type of homes our kids come from, I knew they didn’t need someone yelling, but someone listening and teaching. I knew he had the patience to do so.”
Greiner learned football playing at Butler High for longtime Mecklenburg County coach Barry Shuford. In college at Division II Catawba, Greiner played offense and defense and worked with future San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula, who was Catawba’s defensive coordinator, and with future Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgreen, who held the same position at Catawba.
Greiner learned a lot of football from those men, too, but he especially learned how to lead players from former Catawba coach Chip Hester, who led the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and encouraged his players to use the word “love.”
“I was built to be tough, grimy, nasty,” Greiner said. “I realized that was good to a point, but that can only take you so far. Your core has to be true. So at Harding, we want to be remembered forever. How in the world do we do that? Take out the trash for grandma before she asks; open the door for the lady at Wal-Mart. Know whatever you do, you’re made to be great.
“That’s what I didn’t grasp. I was trying to be a good coach, a good player, but that’s what I missed. That’s what our team is built on. The games will take care of themselves. We have an intense group. We’re aggressive. But we are not eating raw meat and stuff. We build on something real.”
And what will the photographer’s final shot be?
Case, 63, finds himself going to Harding’s games each week and wondering when this ride will end. He snaps photos and shoots video hoping to give the players a memory they’ll cherish. He’s followed high school football around Charlotte for years, but he’s not sure he’s ever seen a team -- or a story -- come together quite like this one.
Quarterback Braheam Murphy, who has lived with Greiner for about a year and half, has accepted a scholarship to Army. Harding has two Shrine Bowl players -- offensive lineman Jovaughn Gywn and defensive back Malik Dunlap.
Dunlap, brother of running back Crouch, has committed to N.C. State. Gwyn is being recruited heavily by N.C. State, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Stanford and Clemson.
And Harding - a school that has struggled economically and athletically as much as any in the area - is two wins from playing for a state championship. That would be a good way to be remembered, wouldn’t it, to go from 1-10 to state champion in three years, thanks to a church, a bond and a coach who won’t quit?
“It’s a perfect storm,” Case said. “Sam’s not ashamed of his faith. He’s an encourager. He was a player himself at the college and semi-pro level (with the Carolina Speed). He knows what it takes and he gets in there with them.
“Guys on these teams often wonder if these older people are interested in them or just trying to get something off of them. If they see someone embrace a teammate as a family member, the way Sam has, obviously you’re in it all the way.”