It is the number of national titles won by the Georgia Southern Eagles. It is also the number of seniors remaining on the team who link GSU to its championship past.
They are the last link to the six national championships, the eight Southern Conference Championships and the triple-option offense that put Georgia Southern football on the map. They stand out from the 18 seniors on the team, because each of the six was recruited in former GSU coach Mike Sewak’s last class.
“There’s only six of us left and we’ve got a pretty tight little bond. We’re kind of like brothers now,” said offensive lineman Cole Fountain.
“Everybody just leans on each other and we still call each other the ‘Old Sewaks’ I guess you could say. We’ve carried that with us for a while now.”
When the Old Sewaks first came to GSU, the sky was the limit for how successful the group felt it could be. When Sewak was dismissed and replaced with Brian VanGorder after a first-round playoff loss to Texas State in 2005, everything changed.
“As far as our class, we were really down,” linebacker Terrione Benefield said. “VanGorder came with his NFL philosophy, and it wasn’t a good fit here. At that point the program wasn’t doing so well, but we stayed confident. We knew that there were good players. We knew we were at a good university and that things would eventually change for our benefit. We kept our heads up, and we just stayed confident.”
Along with the change in style of play, many traditions dating back to Erk Russell — the legendary coach who resurrected football at then Georgia Southern College in 1981 — were done away with.
The players held on to what they could. One thing that kept them together was the Valley Song, a secret chant sung by the players on the way to home games at Paulson Stadium. Nobody could take that away.
“That song’s got nothing to do with the coaches,” said defensive back Ronnie Wiggins. “That’s what our heart is. That’s what all the players are. It’s one of our chants — our battle cry.”
“My freshmen year, the first game I dressed out for was the Furman game,” said offensive lineman Josh Barker. “Furman came in as No. 1 and we upset them on this field. That was honestly the greatest experience I’ve ever had. It was incredible, and the Valley Song played a big part in that. I think it kept us together.”
The team went through the first coaching change in 2006 and again in 2007 when Chris Hatcher took over the program, but the Old Sewaks stuck together through it all.
“After three coaches you’ve got to learn to play for your teammates because you never know,” said linebacker David Lewis. “There was not a lot of stability at the time. The team stayed strong and helped everybody through.”
Hatcher restored much of Georgia Southern’s past when he arrived, and that went a long way in bringing the stability back to the program. Now, all the changes seen by the athletes are changes for the better.
“It’s going up,” Barker said. “We were just talking about the old Lupton Building and now we have Gene Bishop’s building, which is beautiful. The changes are constantly coming. The technology in the Parrish Building has gone up. Everything’s just going up and keeps getting better.”
Still, since Sewak approached those six players with the armful of championship rings that enticed them to come play for him, winning has remained the number-one goal.
“That’s one of my life goals,” said offensive lineman Jonathan Loving. “One of my goals is to win a championship before I leave college — graduate and win a championship. Basically this year, we’re going to try to do that.”
“The drive to win,” Barker said, “the drive to get a championship. We see all those flags every Saturday and we want one to have our name on it.”
“I gotta have it,” said Lewis.
For these six, it’s the last chance. But it’s still possible.
“As far as the team — we already know we’ve got a good team,” said Wiggins. “We’re almost there every time. We’ve always felt like we could win it any year. With Hatcher’s offense and all the athletes we have, we feel like anything is possible. This year’s going to be a great year for us.”
“Coach Sewak,” said Fountain, “when he recruited me he came in, put those rings on the table and I sat there and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to Georgia Southern. That’s what I want to do. I want to put one on my finger.’ We still plan on it.”