Jan. 30, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
If you’ve been a Georgia Tech fan long enough, the name Sam Lilly IV may ring a bell. The sound might at first be muted as it rises from deep within your mind, but even if that’s the case it will come to you so long as you’re long enough in the tooth.
Lilly was a smallish defensive back for the Yellow Jackets in the mid-1980s, recruited by Bill Curry and later sent up the NFL by Bobby Ross. He was a journeyman, but any time a 5-foot-9, 178-pound man can carve out five years in the League he’s got something going on.
Drafted by the Giants in 1988, he spent time also with the Eagles, Chargers and Rams.
Now, he’s at it again; Lilly is fighting uphill.
He has started Sports Academy South, a business whose plan is to train young student-athletes in sport and to be better people.
Located in Grovetown, Ga., not far from where he grew up in Augusta, SAS has funding issues, although contributions have helped him grow the outfit in the past year or so.
Lilly found me through LinkedIn, and he makes no bones about why he contacted me; he’s looking for help, and publicity may work to that end.
After a roundabout post-football career path that took him through multiple teaching and coaching stops, and then a few jobs in the food business, “which will kill you,” he’s trying to help others and eventually help himself.
One day, he hopes SAS will be a paying job. For now, it’s a passion.
“I know people think I’m crazy because I’m not paying myself. I believe God has said, ‘Follow my lead,’ ” he said. “I’ll never look to get rich. I know I can’t make $70,000 or $80,000, but I can support my family. That can be accomplished, but it can’t be accomplished without support.”
Lilly has coached football, girls’ high school basketball and boys’ high school basketball among many sports, and he won a GISA state girls’ title in 1996 and a boys’ title in South Carolina in 2004.
His resume, however, isn’t enough.
He was charged with a crime a few years ago while teaching in Augusta, and while the charges were eventually expunged from his record, damage was done to his life. The rebound has been rough.
“I’ve had my own battles to fight. People tried to slander me, and the Lord has made me a better person as far as listening and surrounding myself with good people,” he said. “I always believed there is good in every one. Sometimes, there is not.
“My integrity and character was on the line. Everything I’d done the last 10, 15 years — even going back to the community service I’d done at Techwood Homes — came into question. I had to battle. My family (a wife, daughter, son and stepson) stayed intact. The Lord has given me more ammunition to go out and fight this fight.”
Lilly said he has a meeting later this week with Grovetown officials about the prospect of growing SAS. He said about 40 student-athletes are on board now, and that SAS last year worked with roughly 100 young men and women.
“I was blessed to coach and teach in all-black schools, and white private schools. What I discovered is there are a lot of good schools, and a lot of good teachers,” he said. “But there are also a lot of people exploiting kids . . . they want to pick up a check.
“We go out and train kids in all sports, train the fundamentals, speed, quickness, agility. What makes us different is we don’t just concentrate on that. We focus on overall character and integrity.”
There was a tutoring session Monday night at SAS, and there will be another Wednesday. The staff at the Academy — which is virtually an all-volunteer roster — also brings in occasional real-world speakers (Curry remains a possibility). Community service is stressed.
“The key is to get involved. Whatever you do, be the best you can,” said Lilly, who said he has earned a Master’s degree in instructional technology from Troy. “It doesn’t have to be athletic; it can be academic. What makes us different is our directors have expertise.
“You won’t see a bunch of 20-year-old instructors. We’ve all played at the next level, and all graduated. We’re all married and have kids. I think that gives us an edge.”
Lilly admits that he doesn’t have an edge, or much knowledge, in the skill of fund raising, and he’s not a businessman by trade.
Already he has solicited input from former Tech teammates, and Tech alumni. He will continue to look for help.
“I went through being told in high school (Butler) that I was too small, and at Tech, too. Bobby Ross was the first coach to say, ‘You can play in the NFL. You got the best plant-and-drive that I’ve ever seen,’ ” he said. “I know what it is to overcome.
“I believe my calling is to help the kids in this area. We want to help our kids be decent citizens so they can give back to the community, go to college, get married and stay married. We tell kids we can’t get you in school; all we can do is help you get yourself in school.
“We’re trying to do good out here, and we need help. Any donations, equipment . . . it all helps.”
To research this further, Lilly can be contacted at 706-495-6663 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The SAS website is at www.sportsacademysouth.com