You don’t abandon childhood dreams of one day playing in the NFL just because you didn’t sign with Tennessee.
Buddy Jones knows reaching the pros from NAIA Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., is a long shot at best. Jones and Rebel senior Zach Skipworth signed a National Letter of Intent with Faulkner on Tuesday at the high school. The Eagles will be in only their fourth year as a program when the Maryville High School running back arrives this fall.
“I’ve loved the game since I was 7 years old,” Jones said. “Since then, I’ve always had the dream of playing in the NFL, and I wasn’t ready to give up.”
Here’s the deal, though: Jones has a backup plan.
He loves football as much as ever, he said. The fiercely chiseled Maryville back enjoyed his finest season as a Rebel last fall, eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing for the first time. His final game at Shields Stadium was one to remember, Jones running for a career-high 158 yards two touchdowns as Maryville advanced to its sixth consecutive state championship game.
The NFL would be great, Jones said, but it’s what Faulkner can add in terms of his education that led him to sign with the Eagles.
“I believe it’s extremely important,” he said. “It’s like another step in a life journey.”
“College is the most important part because without a college education, you can’t do anything in today’s society,” Skipworth added.
Jones and Skipworth aren’t alone in placing a higher priority on academics in making their college choice. Heritage’s Minh Tran, Andy Eldridge, Caleb Allen and Evan Crockett each made formal commitments last week to continue their football careers at nearby Maryville College this fall. A fifth Heritage athlete, 1,000-point Lady Mountaineer sharpshooter Lauren Burnett, recently committed to the Maryville women’s basketball team.
Across town at William Blount, the Governors recently saw offensive lineman Cody Garner commit to the Scots. Fellow Governor senior Caleb Elkins signed on Tuesday to continue his football career at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky.
Quarles feels the Eagles landed a pair of gems in the thickly-muscled Jones, a weight-room legend at Maryville, and the stout, explosive Skipworth, a terror for the Rebels on the defensive line this season. Often, he said, larger Division I programs look too closely at what the stop watches and tape measures are saying and not at the player.
“There’s not like there’s a great deal of difference, a couple of inches in height, a couple of tenths of a second in 40 times,” Quarles said.
Heritage’s Brint Russell shares the sentiment.
The first-year coach already had a lot to shout about with running back/linebacker Michael Cermak signing a National Letter of Intent with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in February. Alcoa’s Tyler Robinson (Kentucky) was the only other area athlete to sign with an NCAA Division I program on national signing day in February.
The vast majority of high school athletes who continue with their sport in college sign with programs other than Division I, but their peers still notice. It’s why the quartet of Crockett, Allen, Eldridge and Tran committing as a group to Maryville means so much, Russell said.
Much of next year’s team was on hand when the foursome formally committed to the Scots during ceremonies at the high school last week.
“It really helps with the young kids,” he said. “They see five guys going to college.”
The Heritage coaching staff places a high priority on how the Mountaineers are performing in the classroom, Russell said.
“We put a lot of effort into checking with teachers and making sure their grades are what they’re supposed to be,” he said. “We want football to have the highest grade point average on campus.”
At a college with the academic reputation Maryville can claim, that way of thinking is all but a must.
“It’s one of the most difficult colleges in our region,” Russell said, “and we’ve got four kids committed to go there.”
Four kids that’ll hit you, too.
“People look at athletes today and so much of what they look at is height and weight,” Russell said. “They don’t look at film much. When you look at film, a kid stands out. You see who can play. Ming makes plays. Andy makes plays. Evan and Caleb make plays.”
College is it for him when it comes to football, Tran said. It’s why a small school like Maryville was such a good fit.
“I wanted to get the most out of my college experience,” Tran said.
Like Tran, Eldridge said he’s more concerned with what happens after football.
“You’ve got to realize, at the lower levels (of college athletics), you’ve got to look at your life,” he said.
Crockett said he gave a great deal of thought to where he would play his college football. Maryville wasn’t the only prestigious small college courting his signature.
“It was between Maryville College and Emory & Henry in Virginia,” Crockett said. “They’re both great schools, so I sat down and thought about it for a week or so. The main reason I chose Maryville was I was more comfortable there, more relaxed.
“I’ve given a lot of thought to what I’d like to do with my life. I love the game of football, but what’s really going to help me out in life is school.”
Few area football teams had a tougher go of it than William Blount’s Governors this past season. With the abrupt resignation of head coach Scott Meadows after spring practice to take the Knox Catholic job, Elkins, Garner and the other Governor seniors were on their third coach in the last six months when new coach David Gregory took the helm in May.
Interim coach Richie Wilhite, who coached the team while Meadows took a leave of absence in 2008, was not retained when the latter stepped down.
Garner, Elkins and the rest persevered, a good thing with what Garner is considering as a career path after college. Football has taught him a lot about hanging in there and sticking to it, he said. He’s hoping to apply that discipline at medical school once his playing days as a Scot are done.
“Maryville College is an awfully prestigious school,” Garner said. “Playing football, I get the chance to go and continue my education. I’m thinking about pre-med. At the same time, I’d like to coach.”
What Campbellsville can offer in the classroom is why he signed with the Tigers, Elkins said.
“College is a big part of it,” the bruising Governor fullback said. “I was looking more for what the school had academically.”
That’s what sold Sam and Elizabeth Elkins, Caleb’s parents, on Campbellsville.
“That was one of the things that made is think it was valid,” said Elizabeth Elkins, a school teacher at Friendsville.
“They just seemed real genuine about being interested in his future,” Sam Elkins said.
While the professional ranks are the dream of almost every high school player, Gregory said he likes the approach Jones is taking. You can want it. You can prepare for it. Just don’t bet your future on it, and don’t forget why you play football in the first place.
“I think most of these kids realize they’re not going to the NFL,” Gregory said. “They’re playing at the next level because they love it.”
Few area basketball players were more lethal when left open the last three seasons than the sweet-shooting Burnett. With the Lady Mountaineers without a strong post game to keep teams honest this past season, Burnett saw more than her share of box-and-one defenses.
“Lauren did a great job for us this year,” Heritage coach Rick Howard said. “She hit some big shots when we really needed them. People were able to play her differently this year because we didn’t have a dominant post game.”
Burnett’s ability to adapt and still become one of only a handful of players in school history to reach 1,000 points speaks volumes about her intelligence, he said.
“She had a great career,” Howard said. “The kid played hard for me. She did whatever she could to help the team. She learned to do other things besides shoot the ball.”
More important, he added, Burnett, an A student at Heritage, never forgot athletics is only part of the equation.
“Maryville College is a great school, and she’s going to get a great education,” Howard said. “I think that’s the big reason she decided to go there.”
Quarles would like nothing better than to see Jones realize his football dreams. He did a lot for Rebel football the last four years, helping the program to a pair of state championships and state-record 74-game winning streak among many accomplishments. Faulkner’s getting a pair of winners.
“I think it’s great,” Quarles said. “These are the kinds of kids we’ve won games with.”
And winning, whether on the gridiron or in the classroom, is made of much the same stuff.