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Football Player of the Year: East Hall QB had work ethic to match great passing numbers
Austin Parker threw for more than 2,700 yards for Vikings in 2016
East Hall High quarterback Austin Parker prepares to throw a pass against Johnson on Sept. 9 in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

All-Area Football Team

When Austin Parker visited the trainers to get his ribs iced, East Hall football coach Bryan Gray would pack his quarterback’s equipment on a cart and sent it back to the locker room.

Parker had suffered a rib injury while weightlifting in late August and tried to play through it that weekend against Chestatee. A bye week awaited the Vikings before their next game against Johnson, giving the junior signal-caller extra time to rest an injury that severely hindered his throwing motion.

But every time Gray took his eyes off Parker during practice, the quarterback slipped back into drills with his teammates.

Even when his equipment was hidden from him, Parker still found someone to throw with in just shorts and a T-shirt.

“You want to get mad at a kid like that, but all you can do is laugh and love him,” Gray said. “He never would make an excuse. Ninety-nine percent of the kids that I know would have hung it up and taken two or three weeks off to get healthy, but he wouldn’t do it. That says a lot about him.”

Parker again played through the injury against Johnson, completing 11 of 12 passes for 216 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-21 win. After a relatively quiet start to the season, that performance kickstarted Parker’s campaign as The Times’ Football Player of the Year.

The quarterback completed 54.4 percent of his passes for 2,726 yards and 27 touchdowns in less than 10 games. He helped East Hall score 34 points in a 3-7 season.

“It’s really a great honor,” Parker said. “I really didn’t think that it would be me, but it’s a great award to be presented with. I’ll just try to stay humble with it and try not to let it affect my mindset for next year or football in general.”

As a sophomore, he threw for 2,267 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015.

Gray said Parker’s growth in his second year as the Vikings’ signal-caller wasn’t just limited to his skill as a quarterback.

Parker lost several key players around him this season, especially on the offensive line, forcing him into a greater leadership role to guide inexperienced teammates.

The player Gray repeatedly referred to as “unassuming” was more than up for that challenge.

“He’s a natural leader, but he’s a very quiet kid,” the coach said. “His leadership is a lot by action, then he’ll say some key words to kids. But I noticed it in his freshman year, he had something about him. He had this ‘it’ about him. Kids kind of gravitate to him. … He just does all the things that a leader would do, but with the humbleness of a kid that would never see the field.”

Parker’s teammates took notice of that, too. For the second year in a row, East Hall players overwhelming selected their quarterback for the team’s yearly leadership award.

“You don’t really see underclassmen getting that type of award from upperclassmen,” Parker said of earning the recognition as a sophomore and junior. “They thought of me that way, and they were able to put their faith in me and trust what I was saying and whatever I was doing.”

Even when football was out of season, the quarterback was striving to make sure he and his teammates were at the top of their game.

When the Vikings returned from Christmas break last year for winter workouts, Parker began organizing some extracurricular activities. He recruited many of his East Hall teammates and reached out to other area football players to participate in unofficial 7-on-7 tournaments.

Players from West Hall, Gainesville and Flowery Branch — along with others who had graduated from those schools — squared off with Parker and his band of Vikings that spring.

“I was looking down through the next two years,” he said. “What can I do right now to make myself better than what everybody else is doing right now, whether they’re at home or doing something else? I’ll take the option every time I get it to pursue my dreams.”

Exhibitions of extra effort like that, Gray said, are what make Parker such a special player. His physical tools and knowledge of the game are obvious advantages, but his emphasis on the little details and intent on constantly improving impress his coach the most.

“He attacks high school football like an NFL quarterback would attack NFL football,” Gray said.

Heading into his final offseason at East Hall, Parker said he’ll continue to quietly prepare and lead his team by example — even if that means pushing himself to the point where his coach has to hide his equipment again.

“He’s just a competitor,” Gray said. “Whatever he does in life, it doesn’t matter if it’s football or business or wherever in the world he goes, he’s going to be a great success.”

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