FRANKLIN — When Tia Atkinson entered her senior season at Page High School, she had limited interest in media, graphics and design. It was a subject she was somewhat familiar with, but also something she didn’t realize would shape her education journey and her whole life.
“I had maybe made one graphic ever and it really wasn’t even one, it was just a logo,” said Atkinson, who also played soccer and flag football for the Patriots. “I guess I kind of felt out of place when I first started in this new program called Outside the Lines, plus I knew so little about the sports industry as a whole.
“I didn’t know what went on outside of the playing fields.”
Atkinson, who landed a sports marketing internship this fall at Florida State, along with recent graduates Brooks Taylor of Ravenwood, Renaissance High’s Katelyn Cohee and Summit’s McKinley Johnston were the pioneers of this past school year’s first Outside the Lines (OTL). The student-led, work-based learning program produced daily content about the Williamson County Schools’ athletic programs and beyond, including working in partnership with the Tennessee Titans on multiple projects through the district’s College, Career and Technical Education (CCTE) and Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (EIC).
“My experience with OTL really contributed to my growth in creativity and pushed me to get outside of my comfort zone,” said Taylor, who will attend the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business for Cinematic Arts. “This past year really has been an incredible one. It was just fantastic.”
The kids call Dr. Jeremy Qualls, the CCTE and EIC executive director and former WCS athletic director, the “big idea guy” who always lives up to the moniker. Qualls, who also launched the popular red-carpet WILLCO Awards to honor student-athletes within the district, said the lightbulb moment for the program occurred in 2017 during the Region 6-AAA basketball tournament held at Centennial.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Qualls, who teamed up with Summit teacher and volleyball coach Warne Riker to help students push social media content, including providing live scoring updates at the tournament. “The guys from Nicholls State were there and I’m trying to sell the kids on the court, but coach (Austin Claunch) is like, ‘What is that group doing right there?’”
Claunch pointed to a row of computers and the students working the region semifinals featuring the Summit and Independence boys’ teams.
“I took him over there and showed him what we were doing and he handed his card to every one of those kids and said, ‘I’ll give you a full scholarship to come to Nicholls State and do this for us,’” Qualls said. “And at that moment, I sat there and thought I’ve been worried about what’s happening inside the lines versus what we could do outside the lines.”
The OTL was born.
When Darrin Joines, who previously coached the Franklin boys’ basketball team, took over as the district’s athletic director in the summer of 2019 the push for OTL gained more momentum. Joines taught marketing at Franklin and Qualls consistently pushed ideas his way for his kids to work with.
“Dr. Qualls always had this idea for a sports management kind of focus and I was already teaching a sports marketing class, but you know, trying to make it a path of study and expand on it was kind of tough to pull off when he was AD,” Joines said. “As we changed these positions, we always had this in the back of our minds and then he took over at the CCTE and we went with it.
“We didn’t know exactly what this was going to look like – we just knew we had to find that path so we decided on work-based learning.”
“We kind of shot from the hip,” Qualls added.
The four students helped re-launch the WILLCO Awards last year after a virtual celebration due to COVID-19. Cohee and Atkinson developed a podcast interviewing finalists and coaches, while Taylor went to work showcasing his video skills.
Even in the summer, the students returned to help run the football media day for the county. They began establishing themselves on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram and pushed Qualls and Joines in terms of potential projects.
“Well, coach Joines still lives in the flip phone era, so there’s that,” Qualls quipped.
The students attended everything from football games to school assemblies capturing moments most media missed while working alongside the professionals at premiere events. Several of the group’s TikToks have broken one million views and by the end of the school year they developed a following of nearly 8,400 people on TikTok and more than 4,800 followers on Instagram. They also teamed up with the student leaders at each school and helped develop a more stable social media presence overall for the entire WCS Sports Conference.
“Early on, I remember our first video getting like 1,000 views and we were all like, ‘yes, we made it,’ but then after we had our first video get more than one million views, I knew we could do this for real,” said Johnston, who will attend Samford in the fall and work in sports media. “We had accounts like Barstool Sports DM-ing us … we were making viral videos and it was just really eye-opening for all of us.”
Cohee said the kind of slow build through the year producing and sharing content online helped her cement her dream of being a sideline reporter.
“The OTL experience helped me get out of my shell and working with the Titans, doing all these podcasts and just taking in this whole process made me more and more comfortable with what I want to do,” said Cohee, who will attend the University of Tennessee-Martin. “This solidified my future.”
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Cohee said Dr. Qualls acted like a booking agent for the four-some. Besides being catalysts in pushing exposure for the newly established Girls Flag Football League – a partnership between the Titans and WCS which included players Atkinson and Johnston – the crew worked the Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans NFL game in December. They produced content displayed on the big screens to the tens of thousands in attendance, including the NFL’s first student section made up of hundreds of WCS students.
“The biggest thing we say is this isn’t some job-shadow thing for high schoolers with these kids – they are here to work and they do it to the highest of standards,” Joines said. “These students speak the language of the younger generation and they know how to navigate dealing with professionals as well.”
“That’s what makes me proud,” Qualls added. “When professionals walk out of meetings with these kids and are blown away by how knowledgeable they are and how they are at pitching ideas and their readiness to contribute.”
All four worked directly with the Titans media team exchanging and building on plans to showcase the first student section at an NFL game. Taylor directed, shot and produced a promotional video featured during the game and was also interviewed as part of the video package shared.
“It was just incredible,” he said of the experience. “I feel like it was a taste of my future.”
In February, the OTL crew worked directly with the TSSAA during the state wrestling championships at the Williamson County Ag and Expo Center turning professional content around on tight deadlines. The girls managed photography of all the state championship qualifiers and Taylor produced a highlight video played just before the finals kicked off.
“I was so pleased to hear Mark Reeves, the new TSSAA executive director, say, ‘Hey look, we’ve paid some groups to do this over the years and it’s never been better than this,’” Joines said. “Now, how about that? They knocked it out of the park.”
The leap into the unknown quickly became a brand over the past 365 days. Applications more than quadrupled for this coming school year and the OTL also doubled to eight students, all of whom helped work the WILLCO Awards earlier this month watching and learning from the first four running the show.
Qualls continues with the big ideas hoping to one day have an OTL set of students engaged in each school with a leadership group overseeing all. He said this year will also feature an expansion into culinary arts at Summit and sports nutrition at Independence, including a dive into the analytical world of athletics, like rigging football players with devices to measure their metrics and using that information to maximize performance through nutrition.
“That has some real implications where if we do it right, we can be published with these kids,” he said.
Regardless of the blossoming future of the OTL, Qualls said of all the kids he’s coached and served as athletic director over, the first four of the OTL “are some of my favorite students ever.”
“In 22-plus years,” he said. “That’s just crazy. I just love them.”
“It’s pretty wild man,” Joines added. “I think this has created some positive pressure for the next group – Team 23 as we are calling them, but this is why I love what we are doing because, let’s face it, some of the best learning happens outside of the classrooms and the textbooks and these kids found it.”
Atkinson said the OTL has completely changed her life and the other three agree.
“I’ve become a totally different person since day one,” Atkinson said. “I’m more confident and I really think I can tackle anything.”
“This has been an amazing experience and I know I would not be where I am today without OTL.”