Suppose you could go back to a time where the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet, Facebook was a collegiate novelty, and Instagram’s founders were in middle school.
Former Bradwell Institute linebacker Chris Bell took viewers back to 2004, his senior season in the premiere of “Welcome to the Jungle, the story of the 2004 Bradwell Tigers.”
Bell’s film is an all encompassing journey from the weight room to the Friday night lights at Olvey Field.
The grainy VHS game footage and faded bold newspaper headlines are a quick reminder that in 2004, social media didn’t control your rise, Pat Donahue and Jeff Whitten at the Coastal Courier did, along with WTOC’s Rick Snow, WJCL Frank “The Big Guy” Sulkowski and Ken Slats from WSAV. Kenny Moody and Kenny Fussell had the airwaves covered.
Sunday’s premiere at the Liberty GTC theater represented over two years of filming, writing, interviewing, and editing that Bell and his contributors spent creating this final project.
There were some anxious moments. Would there be enough material? What would the film be like?
Bell spent days going through old VHS tapes and archives at the Coastal Courier to build the foundation of the film.
Ultimately, “Welcome to the Jungle: the Story of the 2004 Bradwell Tigers” is a football story. Those 2004 Tigers lived up to the speed and hard hitting defense the Institute was known for. Running back Jarrell Crawford’s long, zig-zagging, runs and the bone jarring hits of Gary Guyton, Bell, Vince Vance, Jake Walsh, Mick Ramsey, J.J. McWilliams and others were included.
And, adversity is present throughout the film. The adversity that surrounded the Tigers, on and off the field, was a constant reminder of the struggles of a tough adolescence and character building opportunity on the gridiron. An opportunity that benefited both players and coaches alike.
“During my time at Bradwell, I was fortunate to have a group of coaches that weren’t just good football coaches but they were good men. We were committed not to just making these young men the best football players they could be, but to mold them into men to be good productive citizens,” former Bradwell head football coach Jim Walsh Jr. said.
Players were quick to reciprocate Walsh’s sentiments and shared how they appreciated the influence that the coaches brought.
“We normally knew the right thing to do, but we always didn’t do it, we thought we more than we did and we were hardheaded,” McWilliams, the former Tigers defensive lineman, said.
2004 quarterback Ersell McCullen, who at 5-foot-6 could barely see over a blocking offensive lineman, flipped from running back the previous season, used that same speed to torch opponents all season long. As the 2004 season came to an end, teammates saw that McCullen was making the wrong choices off the field and those choices came with tough consequences.
Not long after his senior season was finished, McCullen got in trouble with the law. He has spent the last 14 years in and out of prison.
“I have nothing but respect for my teammate Ersell McCullen, and I think he is one of the best to play the position, but he just got involved with the wrong crowd and it could have happened to any of us, it’s important to have positive influences of people like coach Emmet Watkins and other coaches,” said 2004 Tiger senior running back/defensive back Omar Stoddard.
The work that the 2004 Tigers put in during the summer was a foundation that built the excitement and expectations.
“When I came to Bradwell from North Carolina, I was primarily a basketball player. I played outside linebacker but coach Aaron Mock asked me to play defensive line and it was a great fit for me,” said Vance, a 2004 First Team All Stater and offensive tackle at UGA.
2004 was full of expectations and the Tigers looked like it was going to exceed everyone of them starting with a 35-10 victory over crosstown rival Liberty and Walsh’s 100th victory at Brunswick weeks later once Region 3-AAAAA.
By the time the regular season ended, the unbeaten Tigers were ranked No. 9 and facing No. 1 Camden County. The defending state champs and the No. 1 ranked team in AAAAA was a matchup for the ages. Possibly 10,000 fans attended the game at Olvey Field and many more listened on the radio. So much hype was part of the week leading up to the game.
“All kinds of rumors were flying around about media and crowd size but we were as focused and as serious in preparation as we had ever been,” Tiger linebacker Jake Walsh said.
“The atmosphere was amazing. I remember just looking at my teammates, telling Vince Vance can you believe we are playing in a game like this,” McWilliams said.
For four quarters it was a heavyweight fight but Camden won 14-12. Bradwell still finished second but there was a hangover the next week going into the playoffs against Houston County. The Tigers lost, to finish 9-2.
“It wouldn’t say it was totally the end of the golden age of Bradwell football but it would be four years before we made another decent run with the 2004 freshmen,” Miller said.
Welcome to the Jungle, is told through the eyes of the 2004 team but it is relevant to anyone that played at or attended Bradwell. The 2004 players chewed the same dirt as players before them and were influenced by the program’s history.
Chris Bell’s Welcome to the Jungle, the Story of 2004 Tigers, is an affirming story of the importance of community, football, family, and brotherhood. Experiences that regardless of race, gender, or background, we all share. Plus, it will make you proud to be a Bradwell Tiger!
Wood was an assistant coach on the 2004 Tigers coaching staff and also was an executive producer for the documentary.