SPRING GARDEN – Berry College’s football stadium is called Valhalla, which alludes to a Viking warrior’s heaven.
On Thursday morning, the Vikings officially welcomed their latest battlefield warrior to their Division III Southern Athletic Association home after Spring Garden senior Luke Welsh signed a scholarship with Berry.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Welsh ran for 1,368 yards and 13 touchdowns on 150 carries as a fullback last season. He also posted 117 stops on defense as a linebacker, including 13 tackles for loss with a sack and an interception.
“I’ve always loved watching games there,” Welsh said. “It’s close to home, and that was a big influence. I want to be able to have some Spring Garden people come and my family be able to come watch me play. It’s a great college. It’s beautiful. Just getting to play four more years makes it all worth it.”
Welsh is the latest in a long line of family members to continue their high school playing days into college. His dad Mark played football at Maryville College in Tennessee. His mother Ann is a hall of fame softball player at Jacksonville State. His grandfather Dale, also a JSU graduate, is a high school hall of fame basketball coach, and his uncle Mike also played basketball at Berry.
Several of Welsh’s siblings and cousins also play sports at Spring Garden.
“Sports are held high in our family. I wouldn’t say we worship them, but it’s a big deal for all of us to be playing,” Welsh said. “All of my siblings play, and we all love going to watch each other play. I remember days when we were little nearly getting in fist fights. Pop (Dale Welsh) would take us out in the pasture and set up bases and make us play baseball. We would get into it, and I think that built us into what we are now.”
That pasture, along with the Panther athletic programs, has helped build Welsh into a college football player.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be one of the guys who goes down in school history to go on and play a little bit more,” Welsh said. “Lifting weights and stuff like that has always been my motivation, to get somebody else to look at me, eventually go play somewhere and be able to hold my own at an upper level of football. It’s a big jump. I know I’ve got a lot more work to do. It’s just amazing that I’m able to do this.”
Spring Garden coach Jason Howard said he knew Welsh had the potential to be a standout football player as early as the sixth grade, even before he could play junior high.
“We had him coming out and doing some stuff with us,” Howard said. “From seventh grade on, he was practicing with the varsity and playing junior high, and from that point on, he’s been a figure on the varsity ever since.
“It’s going to be hard for us to replace him, but I am tickled to death to see him get the opportunity to go on and play football for a few more years. He’s going to a good program. They’ve got a tradition of winning. I’m tickled for him. He’s going to be close enough to where we can watch him play also.”
Howard said Welsh had offers from other schools, but as Welsh said, playing close to home was an important factor in his decision.
“Every game I came off the field, the first two people to hug my neck and tell me good job, whether I played good or not, was my pop and my granny. I want that to continue,” Welsh said. “I know they’re definitely going to be there at every home game and probably as many away games as they can make it to. That’s a big deal to me. That, and being able to come home and watch Spring Garden games still when I get a chance. I hope I can go and be able to bring something to the table at Berry and make them even better.”
Welsh, who plans on majoring in wildlife biology at Berry, said the Vikings plan on utilizing his football talents at tight end/halfback. Although his preference is the defensive side of the ball, Welsh said he’s just excited to continue playing the sport he loves.
“If I’m playing on extra points and I’m the long snapper, I’m going to be happy if I get to play four more years of football,” he said. “I’m just happy to get to play and be part of another team. I hope I bring a little bit of the Garden to Rome.”