Rick Cohen, an award-winning filmmaker who makes his home in Cobb County, noticed as the football team’s winning streak stretched from five games to six and finally to 7-0.
Cohen, who first worked with Walker coach John East a decade ago, when East was athletic director at the Lovett School, saw a film in the making.
Cohen, whose credits include films on Walton’s 2011 football team (“Dome to Dome”) and Greenville High School coach Jeremy Williams’ battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease (“Season of a Lifetime”), had recently wrapped up a project and was looking for something new.
Not only that, but Cohen knew there was more to the Walker story than just what was playing out on the field.
“I knew John’s story, so I called him up,” Cohen said. “It turned out to be Whitefield (game) week, and I thought what an interesting story to tell. It was John coming full-circle.”
In 2008, Cohen worked with East at Whitefield, filming its football program for a documentary entitled “And the Lord Said … Smack ’em in the Mouth!” that focused on the school’s balance of a Christian-based education and hard-hitting football.
East left Whitefield in the spring of 2010 to accept a position at Pinecrest Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and he planned to relocate with his wife, Jeannne, a teacher at Whitefield, and their two sons.
East’s time at Pinecrest didn’t last long, however. The school’s headmaster, Hank Battle, was ousted, and all of the employee contracts — including East’s — were voided.
East was out of a job.
Unable to get his old job back at Whitefield because the position had already been filled, East took the opportunity to do consulting at Walker. That led him to start a lacrosse program at the school, and when Ben Williamson announced after the 2011 season that he would not be returning as the Wolverines’ football coach, East applied for the job.
Selected as the sixth coach of Walker’s 12-year football history, East was tasked with turning around a program that finished 3-7 in 2011 and had not reached the playoffs since 2005.
The story, as Cohen saw it, was more than rebirth of a football team — it was the redemption of a man.
“The movie is about John and his roundabout way of getting back to coaching and finding his way in life,” Cohen said. “Here is a man who was at the top of his career and then, through no fault of his own, lost his job. And then what was he going to do with it?”
The next chapter of the story would come when Walker faced Whitefield in the eighth game of the season. East was not only against his former employer, but against Wolfpack coach Jimmy Fields, who he had hired in 2007.
“He picked up on the story going on here with us since we started winning games,” East said. “He called me one day and said they had a couple of sponsors and wanted to follow this thing. It was something that he, all of a sudden, came out and said he wanted to do, so we said we’d go ahead with it.”
It took three days for Cohen to put the idea together for “Walk East”, as the film would later be called.
The title isn’t just a play on words with Walker and its coach’s name.
It’s a reference to East’s faith.
“They said, when you walk east, you walk toward Jerusalem or walk with God,” Cohen said.
East said filming began shortly after that first conversation with Cohen, and the project was given an air date on the same day Walker suffered its season-ending loss to George Walton in the quarterfinal round of the Class A private-school state playoffs.
The 30-minute “Walk East” will air Dec. 14 on Georgia Public Broadcasting, after the first day of state championship football games.
East said it was great having the film crew on campus, with as many as three cameras shooting the team’s practice.
“We had camera here every week one day,” East said. “They’ve been in the locker room doing interviews and practice and all this. I mean, it’s been a lot of fun and not intrusive. (Cohen) does a great job, and his camera man, too.”
Cohen and his film crew spent the week leading up to the Whitefield game profiling Walker’s preparation for the Wolfpack and through its 21-14 win over the cross-county rival.
And when the Wolverines kept winning, Cohen and his film crew kept coming back.
“We were hoping they would go to the state championship,” the filmmaker said, who added that the Walker athletes were a pleasure to work with.
“I had more fun in the week I spent with this football team than any football team I have been around. I felt like the kids were respectful and engaging and motivated and really cared about each other and coach East.
“John still brings fun to the game of coaching. I think a lot of coaches lose that ‘fun-ness’ — if that’s a word — but coach East has kept that a part of the game.”