FORT MILL — Nation Ford High School students are proving that, even at an all-star level, there’s more to football than just football.
Take Michael Stilwell, the poster boy for this year’s Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. Fans literally can’t buy a program or get in the stadium for the 77th annual battle between North Carolina and South Carolina prep stars without coming across his work.
The junior digital art and design student had his best layout selected by bowl officials for posters, tickets and programs ahead of the Dec. 21 event in Spartanburg.
It’s the second straight year Joe McConkey’s design class created the artwork through a student competition. The class also does work for local businesses, the school board – they even designed the Banks Trail Middle School mascot and will do the same for Tega Cay and Doby’s Bridge elementary schools “as soon as they tell us what the animal is,” McConkey said.
“It’s very project-based,” he said of the class. “It makes it very real for the students when they’re working with a client.”
Stilwell inherited his height from a basketball-playing dad, but his athletic exploits don’t reach beyond the backyard. He has only been to a few Nation Ford games this season. He is part of two of the school’s fastest growing groups: the design class and JROTC.
Starting out with “no idea how I was going to do it,” Stilwell found inspiration in a soccer poster for the winning design. He’s had his share of projects that haven’t turned out well. Even the Shrine Bowl design wasn’t a hit without many tweaks.
“It was actually rejected several times before it was finalized,” Stilwell said. “At one point, it was considered a dead design. I’m glad I kept with it.”
Senior Riley Hilton took a more traditional approach to his all-star contest, the North-South game on Dec. 14 in Myrtle Beach. Hilton did everything for the Falcon football team this year except sell hot dogs or sweep out the place after games.
“During the season,” Hilton said, struggling to recall, “I was on kickoff, I punted, I long-snapped and I played tight end, quarterback, defensive end, linebacker and safety. There were some games when I probably didn’t touch the sidelines when the clock was running.”
Hilton has scholarship offers already for Tusculum and Newberry colleges. He also has to finish out the year. Hilton letters in four sports at the school – basketball, baseball and golf in addition to football. All while taking college credit and college prep classes.
“He’s an all-in type young man,” said head football coach Michael Allen. “He’s going to do his part and more.”
McConkey and Allen say at Nation Ford it isn’t good enough to settle. Design students must learn how to apply what they’re learning and accept responsibility for the outcome. Athletes have to be as competitive academically as they are athletically, both to get on the field at Nation Ford and to stand out for recruiters.
“It’s a school where you have to do your work in the classroom,” Hilton said.
The results are there. The football team made a return trip to the state playoffs this season and earned its first ever win against cross-town rival Fort Mill High School.
The marching band won its fourth state title in five years. And individuals like Stilwell and Hilton won individual praise and all-star experiences.
Allen talks about his senior all-purpose player, who did everything this year short of snapping the ball to himself before punting it, as representative of what the school hopes to achieve with its students.
“He just shows others that it can be done,” Allen said.