Feb. 28, 2019-- Hart County High School students enjoyed a bright glow on Wednesday morning, but it didn’t have anything to do with the sun finally shining outside.
It came from the stage of the school’s Lonnie Burns Fine Arts Center, where an energetic man in a near-blinding yellow tuxedo was speaking center stage. The man was Jesse Cole, the owner of the Savannah Bananas. The wooden bat collegiate Coastal Plain League team has become a star highlight of its namesake city in recent years, with the last two seasons seeing sold-out crowds in the stands of Grayson Stadium. The current season, too, is already sold out with a wait list quickly filling up with fans hoping for seats to the highly entertaining games.
While being owner of the Bananas, Cole is likewise owner of Fans First Entertainment, is author of “Find Your Yellow Tux”, and is a motivational speaker. Typically, he can be found presenting to corporations and businesses, speaking about his personal experiences and chasing his dream, as well as prepping business leaders with ideas and tips on encouraging their employees, and being grateful to their clients and communities.
Wednesday, though, Cole took a step off his usual path to speak to the high schools’ students- and administrators- in the packed auditorium of the Fine Arts Center. The new audience, he noted ahead of his presentation, was clearly a new take on his usual routine and speech, but one he gladly embraced.
“If I can even motivate just one student today, to be the best they can be, to never stop learning, to achieve their dreams and know they can be whoever and whatever they want, I’m all in,” Cole said prior to taking center stage. “I usually talk to businesses, but this, this is different. I want these students to know they can be a sponge, learn all they can about their passion, and be motivated to pursue that passion. I want them to walk away knowing they can create their own path, no matter the hurdles, as long as they find their passion.”
Cole admitted he had to overcome his own set of challenges to be where he is today. Always filled with a love of baseball, and a sense of drive, he created his own major while a student at Wofford College, graduating with a cross-major, self-designed degree in leadership, a degree that had never been handed out before he attended the college in South Carolina. The Massachusetts native ended up in the south to go to the college to play baseball, but an injury ended his career early. So, instead of taking the field, he took on the books, learning all he could about his mentors, which included entrepreneurs Walt Disney and B.T. Barnum. From those and other early leaders and businessmen, he learned how to be a leader, how to see a vision into fruition, how to think outside the box and how to sculpt a culture of enthusiasm.
He also realized, he could turn baseball into a so-called circus, and he used this theory when he went into an unpaid internship for the North Carolina collegiate summer baseball team, the Gastonia Grizzlies. While the Grizzlies were known as one of the worst teams in the league, Cole was a resilient employee, who quickly rose up the ranks of leadership and at 23 years old, was hired as general manager of the team. That eventually lead him to purchasing the Savannah Sand Gnats, a team with a shallow following and not much gumption. However, after using his leadership and marketing energy, he flipped the team into the now Savannah Bananas, with sold-out crowds, a banana mascot named Split, and games filled with creative entertainment such as the dancing first base coach, a beloved banana cannon and the ever-popular grandma dance team.
The enthusiasm the city now pours into Grayson Stadium during the summer months was not easily found, as in its first year, the team changing from the Sand Gnats minor league into the college league Bananas was highly criticized. But as Cole and his crew of original thinkers poured innovative ideas into the team, more and more city dwellers, the media and fellow teams caught wind of the change and they got on board. Something, through their tenacity and willingness to standout, made the Bananas be different and let a guy in a yellow tuxedo take charge of their own future. It started a buzz that has led the team to where they are today. And where they are today is at a sold-out level, creating national attention and a crowd of fans who simply go bananas for the Bananas.
“So the message is, stop standing still,” Cole said. “Start standing out.”
This message of perseverance, creativity, motivation and gratitude, is what Cole spread into students at the high school during his presentation. Students inhaled Cole’s message, going along with the silly games he asked them to play during his appearance, and walking away with a newfound inspiration for following their dreams and staying the course. This message fit in perfectly with the school’s huge banner outside the Fine Arts Center, which states “Finish What You Start.”
High school principal Kevin Gaines said he was more than willing to invest in having Cole speak with his students, as they were elevated to the next level of achievement after hearing his personal tale of triumphs, failures and eventual victories. He hopes his students will do what Cole asked of them- be a sponge, learn all they can, always show gratitude, and follow their dreams, no matter what hurdles may lay ahead.