THIS STORY APPEARS IN GARY LLOYD’S BOOK, VALLEY ROAD: UPLIFTING STORIES FROM DOWN SOUTH. GET IT HERE.
So much about that high school football season was tough. A player dying during a gym workout prior to the season kicking off. The small town’s grocery store, which produced a quarter of a million dollars in annual tax revenue, closing. A student starting a fire in a school bathroom.
There was always the football team, one of the best in the state, if not the country. Stars were all over the field. There were two wide receivers, one destined for the SEC, the other for the Big Ten. There was a defensive end as big as some NFL players. All the defensive backs were going to play at the next level. The first-year starting quarterback slithered like Mike Vick and passed like Peyton Manning. All those stars, and one stands out to me.
The team’s top running back was a stud. He often broke long runs for touchdowns, and they were never a question of if, but when. If he had a half step on a quick defensive back, even then fans knew that he was gone. It was his senior season, and the five offensive linemen blocking for him were strong as bulls. He was going to put up a ton of yards.
He ran with purpose. He told me once that he wasn’t necessarily thinking about holes in the defensive line, room to run on the perimeter. No, he was thinking about family.
His father was murdered before he was out of elementary school. That case went cold. I often saw this running back after his games as a sophomore, embracing a host of family members, some old, some toddlers, but not before he toted navy-blue plastic chairs from the sideline, used for coaches and tired players during the games, back to the field house after home games, a requirement for underclassmen at this high school. He was leading by example, even as a sophomore.
It was all going right for him by his senior year. He was the unquestioned team captain. He was the school’s all-time leading rusher. When he was crowned homecoming king, he gave the award to a classmate who had a form of cancer, a boy who had once blocked for him on the offensive line. He had amassed more than fourteen hundred rushing yards that season alone. He had college scholarship offers. His team was undefeated and steamrolling its opponents. It wasn’t fair, really. But in the second round of the state playoffs, he felt a pop in his knee. His ACL was torn. His season and career were over.
His backup was also a senior, sparingly used due to the success of the top running back. The team had its sights set on a state championship. The new guy had big shoes to fill.
In the quarterfinals, the new running back rushed twenty-two times for two-hundred-eleven yards and three touchdowns. In the semifinals, he carried twenty-two more times for nearly one-hundred-fifty yards. He was remarkable.
As the team prepared for its state championship appearance, I interviewed about a dozen players for pre-game stories. I spoke to the new star, and he was awfully quiet, but respectful. He told me that his running back friend, the one who tore his ACL, would be on the sidelines at Auburn University’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, cheering the team on.
The head coach told me that the new star’s mother had died nearly three months prior. I was saddened to hear that. I’m still unsure of the exact cause. The team went on to win the state championship in a classic game, its first title in fifteen years. The running back who tore his ACL held the trophy high in the air that night, and his picture appeared on the front page of the local newspaper.
I looked back at my first story from that season on those two running backs, which was published just after the playoff semifinals. In the story, the second-stringer said his teammate had taught him about vision and following his blockers.
I think he taught him much more than that.