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What Arab High has done on the football field this fall is a big deal for the school and the community.

The Knights won nine regular season games for only the third time in school history. No Arab team has ever won 10 games. Prior to this season, the only Arab team to capture a region title was in 1993 when the Arabian Knights won a three-team region. This season, the Knights outscored six region opponents, 248-57.

On Friday night, for the second consecutive season and only the third time in the program’s history, Arab will host a Class 5A playoff game with East Limestone coming to town.

“I think for the community, it’s a big deal,” said Arab head coach Lee Ozmint. “I think, to the kids, they just want to play football. That’s what I love about this group. We’ll talk about what all these things mean later. What we want to do now, is find out what it takes to win. That’s all they’re interested in. What do we have to do to win this next game? That’s what you’ve got to have when you hit playoffs. You got to have that group that’s going to stay dialed in, stay focused and not get caught up in the moment.”

Moments like this haven’t come often for the Arab program. Ozmint knew that when he took over the program in 2019, despite advice from a coaching friend, who told him to steer clear of the job.

Ozmint chose instead to do what he’s always done. He listened to God.

“I would never have chosen Arab, God chose Arab for me,” Ozmint said.

He took over a program that was 3-17 the previous two seasons and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2010. He quickly figured out what the players needed.

“It wasn’t broken,” said Ozmint. “What they had was, I think, four coaches there the last six years. There had been turnover. Look, Arab is a difficult place to win consistently. It’s got a lot of challenges. What I felt like Arab needed, worse than anything, was just somebody to stick, somebody to stay. It just seems like any coach achieved success here, they left the next year. That’s what these guys were used to. The first year I was here, we went 6-4, and half of them thought I was gone. They just needed somebody to stay with them.”

This year’s senior class were freshmen when Ozmint arrived. They have become the cornerstone of the way he envisioned the team should look. Quarterback Aidan Cox is the type of player that not only offenses are built around, but entire teams are built around. As a sophomore, Cox became the starting quarterback before the season began because starter Ed Johnson broke his leg. The next season, Johnson was back and the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Cox was once again the backup.

“Instead of just playing second team, he came to me and asked if he could play special teams,” Ozmint said. “He was the long snapper, he played on every special team. He was a great special teams player. First man down the field on the kickoff team, he was the long snapper for punts, he just did it all, did a little bit of everything. He just did everything we asked him to do and more because he asked us if he could do more. Now, he’s come into his senior year and he’s quarterback 1. He’s a natural leader because everybody has seen how he responded to adversity. There’s not a player on this team that doesn’t respect him, totally respect him.”

Defensive leaders include linebacker Josh Roe, who had more than 100 tackles in the regular season, nose tackle Will Caneer, who has 13 sacks, rover Hayden O’Reilly and cornerback John Ray Wilks. All four are seniors and it’s Roe that brings it all together.

“He just makes play after play,” Ozmint said. “Undersized but heart as big as a boat. I don’t know how he does what he does.”

Another key has been everyone else filling their role.

“It's been a good year to see how they’ve all fit, they’ve all assumed their roles and accept those roles,” Ozmint said.

Tying it all together is a head coach that was a standout player at the University of Alabama. The South Carolina native was recruited by Ray Perkins and finished his career under Bill Curry. Ozmint was a gritty four-year letterman and three-year starter at safety with nine career interceptions, including six in an All-SEC 1988 season. When his playing days were over, he went to law school and eventually settled into what he thought would be a lifetime career as a lawyer. Instead, the career lasted about seven years.

“I loved the people I worked with, I knew that wasn’t a problem,” Ozmint said. “I just felt a disconnect. I’m normally a pretty passionate person, I just didn’t love what I was doing. I had the opportunity to work with some great lawyers, learned some great things. I just never felt like that was my calling.”

It was, however, the way he put food on the table and paid the bills for a family that included his wife, Leigh, and two young sons.

One day, while teaching a Sunday school class, a friend, who was an assistant principal at Gadsden High, asked him if he ever thought about teaching. Ozmint replied that he had thought about it but just didn’t see how it could work. He would need to go back to school to get his credential and the pay cut would be substantial. His friend was persistent. He called the next day to inform Ozmint that he could get an emergency credential and work while going to school. Shortly afterward, he followed up with a phone call to see if Ozmint would be willing to come in for an interview with the principal.

“I said, I’m not going to interview but I’ll talk to him,” Ozmint said. “He set it up and I met with him. He offered me the job, an English teaching position.”

Ozmint headed back to his law office, maneuvering through lunch-hour traffic, and called his wife. He told her about the job offer and went through the reasons he couldn’t do it.

“Leigh said, ‘Where are you right now?’” Ozmint said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m at the corner of Walnut and Fourth.’ She said, “Turn around, go back and take that job.” So, I turned around, went back and I took the job. It was a God thing from that point forward. I didn’t know how it was going to happen but it happened.”

He’s never looked back.

“I’ve loved what I do ever since,” Ozmint said. “Now, it’s hard, in some ways, it’s tougher than what I was doing. When you’re dealing with problems of a 16-year-old kid, there’s no easy way to handle that. But it’s the difference in having a calling on my life and not having a calling on my life. That’s what it was and I know it.”

His first year teaching and coaching was in 2001. He’s still living his calling. Ozmint taught English and was an assistant coach at Gadsden until he took a head coaching job at Class 3A Glencoe. He was 77-37 in 10 seasons and led his team to the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons. In 2014, Glencoe was 13-1 and advanced to the Class 3A semifinals, where the Yellow Jackets dropped a 31-28 decision to a Madison Academy team that featured future Auburn and NFL running back Kerryon Johnson. Ozmint’s sons – Thomas and Pace – were all-state players on that Glencoe team.

After the 2015 season, Ozmint had the desire to coach in a larger classification, so he took the defensive coordinator position at Class 6A Oxford. After three seasons, he wanted to return to being a head coach, and here he is, poised to lead his team into the playoffs.

  “That’s what it’s all about,” Ozmint said. “We met as a staff, right after we won the region championship. We were just talking, speaking out loud our gratification for this group of young men and how much they deserve to go to the playoffs. That doesn’t always happen, you don’t always feel like you deserve to go somewhere. This is a special group of young men. There are things that you worry about with other teams that you don’t with this team. They’re so mature, they understand, they get it and they’re passing it along.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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