CLEVELAND — Long before Maurice Sutton stepped on a football field, he began his first playing career.
Starting when he was 3 or 4 months old, his mother would bring him to Cleveland to visit his grandparents, Gloria and Phineas Sutton.
Whenever the youngster would get antsy, his grandmother would scoop him up and take him over to the piano, set him in her lap and lay his hands on the keys.
“Every time he came to the house this was the routine,” Gloria Sutton said. “He just sort of grew up that way playing.”
By the time he moved from Atlanta to live with his grandparents at the age of 6, it was only a couple of years before Gloria found Maurice a piano teacher. He began taking lessons with Ann Hoots.
“At first, I really did not like it,” Maurice said. “But over the years I started playing classical pieces, and that just soothed me some and helped me out with some things, really.”
Maurice, now a senior running back and cornerback for White County High, had to work a little harder at getting Gloria’s support for him to play football. He started by asking to play recreation ball when he was 11 and 12 and was told “no.” His grandmother said the health effects that come after football were what concerned her most.
Instead, he worked as a manager for his friends’ teams. Eventually, with the encouragement of much of the community, Gloria agreed to let Maurice play football in eighth grade.
Gloria used to watch football on television and wonder why people would sit in the stands in the pouring rain to watch a game. Now, she’s braved the rain with a makeshift umbrella and ponchos and at other times sat in a sleeping bag on cold nights to watch her grandson play for the Warriors.
“I’ve got to watch those games and be there, cheer him on,” Gloria said.
Raising Maurice from an early age and watching his progress athletically has come with the help of faith, according to Gloria. Her grandson takes a similar approach, saying he prays before each game to ask God to help him lead in a positive way.
“He’s worked hard, and he’s overcome a lot of things, obstacles that I thought would give him problems,” Gloria said. “But he has managed, and through prayer and fasting, I give it all to the Lord because the Lord has truly brought him thus far. He knows it.”
Maurice maintains a relationship with his mother, Felicia Kindle, who lives in Atlanta. The piano has also remained a major part of his life, and he has won multiple awards at festivals and talent shows.
Maurice, the homecoming king at White County this year, runs his own lawn care business, as well.
But Gloria is perhaps most impressed with her grandson’s ability to make friends easily. She once sent him to school with lunch money and was confused at why he was so hungry when he got home. He said that he had to visit multiple tables during lunch to see different groups of friends and ran out of time to eat.
Gloria hoped Maurice would focus on baseball, but after playing travel ball in sixth and seventh grades, he gave up his time on the diamond when he began playing football. In addition to football, he is on White County’s basketball and track and field teams.
Maurice said his grandmother is the loudest person in the stands at whatever sport he’s playing.
She says it’s a mix of cheering on the team, telling her grandson what to do and getting frustrated with officials. She said the players will sometimes tell Maurice they don’t hear her when she has quieted down for a little bit.
“I’m glad that he says they can hear me because sometimes I think it makes a difference,” Gloria said.
Since his start in football, Maurice has come a long way. He said he “was pretty slow for a very long time.” That began to change when he started running track as a freshman for Bill Ballard, who is also his head football coach. Now he runs the 200 meters, 4X400 relay, 4X100 relay and long jump. He’ll be adding the 110 hurdles to his events in the spring.
It’s not surprising now to see Maurice zooming past opposing defenders for a touchdown. He’s tallied 14 touchdowns this year: 10 rushing, three receiving and one scoring pass. Maurice has averaged six yards per carry on the ground, and he’s totaled 64 tackles and four interceptions from his cornerback spot.
In track and field, he was fifth in Class AAA in long jump in the spring and part of the 4X400 relay that placed sixth. But he still remembers his early days of track and field.
“Practices were the hardest thing ever,” he said. “I can still think back to ninth-grade year. We ran eight 200s, and I got up to like four and couldn’t do it.”
Maurice is playing with two of his best friends, Sam Turner and Max Taylor. One of his favorite memories from this season so far was when their blocks helped him score on a long touchdown run in a 31-17 win against Pace Academy on Sept. 12. He finished with 126 rushing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in that game.
Quarterbacks coach Jake Cantrell said Maurice’s blocking ability is a vital contribution that can’t be measured in stats.
“They take pride in taking care of each other,” said Cantrell of Maurice, Turner and Taylor, his team’s senior backfield trio.
Maurice and his teammates would likely clinch a school-record third straight playoff appearance with a win at North Hall on Friday or a Madison County loss to North Oconee. It would also be White County’s fourth postseason trip in five seasons.
“It just feels great to know we have this coaching staff behind us and helping us out,” Maurice said. “It’s just a blessing.”
The Warriors senior also knows he has the support of his grandparents, particularly the grandmother for whom he sometimes plays piano to help her fall asleep. They’re never far from his mind.
“In everything I’ve done, she’s been pretty much my greatest motivation to try my best, her and my grandpa, too,” Maurice said. “They push me to the absolute top every time.”
Gloria can’t even name all the people in the community who have stood behind her grandson and helped him become the young man he is today, but she said she’s eternally grateful. Maurice said he is glad his grandparents have been able to see him find success in football and piano.
He has college football offers from Furman University and Presbyterian College.
“They are extremely happy and proud, too,” Maurice said. “They have been praying since Day One to keep me healthy and to hopefully get a scholarship to go play so it’ll be less on them.”