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For Drew Atha, its punt, pass, kick, win
9-year-old regional champ could make national finals
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Listen to Gainesville High School coach Bruce Miller discuss linebacker Corey Clark’s return to the team after three heart surgeries.

Forty young athletes took the field at the Georgia Dome Sunday morning to compete in the Team Championship level of the NFL Pepsi Punt, Pass & Kick challenge — and 9-year-old Gainesville native Drew Atha took home first place for his age group.

Winners of boys and girls sectional competitions across Georgia and Alabama got one pass, one punt and one kick on the field at the Atlanta stadium. Competitors ranged in age from 8 to 15 years old, and boys and girls competed separately against their peers. Scores were based on both distance and accuracy.

Drew entered the NFL Pepsi Punt, Pass & Kick competition at the local level at Gainesville’s City Park on Sept. 16.

After winning first place locally, the Riverbend Elementary School fourth-grader advanced to the sectional round of competition in Snellville, where he placed first again.

Drew’s total yardage score from the three events was pitted against top sectional winners in the 8- and 9-year-old age group from across Georgia and Alabama. Only five of the two states’ top scorers from each of the girls’ and boys’ age groups advanced to the team competition held Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

Now, Drew must wait until all team competitions end in December, when he will be notified as to whether his total score will win him a top four position in the country and a ticket to the national finals competition. All national finals competitors win a trip for themselves and two adults to the national NFL Pepsi Punt, Pass & Kick competition. Its location has not been announced.

Beth Atha, Drew’s mother, said that he has always excelled at sports, and began playing football at age 5.

"He was walking at 7 months and hitting off a baseball tee when he was 2," Beth Atha said. "He eats, breathes and sleeps some kind of ball."

Although Drew said that he enjoys playing football for the Junior Trojans most, he also plays baseball for a Gainesville city league and basketball at Riverbend Elementary.

Drew said that he practiced passing, punting and kicking with his father, Rodney Atha, who coaches several local children’s sports teams.

"Me and my dad would work every day after he got off work," Drew said.

Drew and 39 other young football players participating in the competition Sunday sat on the field as the Atlanta Falcons warmed up for their game against the San Francisco 49ers.

"I was excited," Drew said. "I got to meet Alge Crumpler, and he’s really bigger in person than he is on the football field."

But the fourth-grader said he was very nervous when he was featured in part of the halftime event and shown on the jumbotron television screen after the third quarter.

Drew said that he would like to play for a professional sports team someday, and to be the best running back in football. And from this fourth-grader’s 223-yard kick, punt and pass total, some sports fans might believe the stars are in his reach.