Video: Coaches, players talk about unsung heroes
Region 7-AAA teams still battling for playoff spots
Michael Jordan would not have had dual three-peats without John Paxson and Steve Kerr. Ryan Howard’s Phillies’ World Series title might not have come to fruition without Joe Blanton’s home run. And Michael Phelps would have seven golds and one silver if not for Jason Lezak.
With every title won, in every sport played there are unsung heroes. Players who aren’t fought for come signing day, draft day or free agency time, and whose performances don’t grab the headlines. Those who fill the role of Robin to Batman.
For Flowery Branch and Gainesville, the unsung heroes make up the fabric with which wins and a possible region championship are woven.
“There are guys that will get a little more publicity because they’re Division I guys,” Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw said. “But it’s all those kids that are your typical high school football players that may not go anywhere, that play with tremendous heart, that make high school football so special.”
For Flowery Branch, the spotlight shines on Izaan Cross, Daniel Drummond and Connor Shaw. All are Division I prospects garnering attention from ACC and SEC schools alike with Drummond already verbally committed to Georgia Tech.
For the Red Elephants, it’s quarterback Blake Sims and wide receiver T.J. (Tai-ler) Jones who grab the headlines. The two sport gaudy offensive numbers, and are highly-touted Division I recruits.
“Those guys get the headlines, but the other guys make it a team game,” Miller said, “and make it happen on Friday night.”
Take for instance, Flowery Branch’s Chris Lipscomb. The senior wide receiver and defensive back is averaging 20 yards per catch and has four touchdowns. Not to mention he’s fourth in the area with three interceptions.
And then there’s Gainesville’s A.J. Johnson, who is fourth in the area in tackles with 104, eight for a loss.
Gainesville’s Teryan Rucker and Juwon Jeffries have flown under the radar at the running back and receiver positions because of Sims’ 665 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, and Jones’ 612 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
The two are aware of their roles and willing to thrive within them.
“I am the guy that when I get the ball I need to make plays,” said Rucker, who has 504 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the season, while also averaging 17.9 yards per catch with two touchdowns. “I only get it when it’s really needed and I’m the guy that they can count on.”
“I’m the other piece to the puzzle,” said Jeffries, a senior who has 259 yards receiving and three touchdowns. “If Tai-ler’s (Jones) covered and Blake (Sims) can’t run, he knows he can look for me. I’ll always be there.”
Jeffries also embraces his role as a team leader, accepting the responsibility of leading by example and picking up his more well-known teammates.
“If Tai-ler’s not having a good game,” he said, “then I can pick him up a little bit.”
Offense aside, the two teams’ defenses, with the exception of a player or two, go relatively unnoticed individually. The thing is, that’s exactly what they want.
“We don’t worry about the praise,” said Gainesville’s Josh Jackson, who is leading the area with 11 sacks. “We just try to go out here, play hard, get shutouts and win games.
“Offense brings the crowd, defense wins the games.”
With all the attention Cross and Drummond get, it’s Flowery Branch’s Division I-AA prospect Greg Palmer who leads the team in tackles.
“Greg is intense,” Shaw said. “He’s been making plays since his sophomore year.
“He’s gonna come up and play like a linebacker, and he’s going to play good pass coverage and he’s a leader back there.”
From his strong safety position, Palmer has amassed 89 tackles, four for a loss. That’s 18 tackles better than the team’s second-leading tackler Cory Sanderson and 23 better than Cross.
Palmer wants to play at the next level and is being looked at by Presbyterian College, Furman University, Wofford College and Jacksonville State University.
“It’s all want-to,” Palmer said. “Even Izaan (Cross) and (Daniel) Drummond, they’re not out there to win Mr. Popularity, they’re out there to make plays.
“I love playing football, I love playing the game, and I just play with a bunch of heart speed.”
While Palmer makes the tackles, 5-foot-7 David DeLeon is, according to his coach, the defense’s spark.
“He’s got the biggest heart of anyone on the team,” Shaw said.
DeLeon’s biggest moment came in the Chestatee game. With the Falcons’ offense not yet clicking, the small linebacker with big game intercepted a pass for a touchdown, and caused a fumble that resulted in a Flowery Branch touchdown to lead his team to a 24-7 win.
“He knows where to be,” Shaw said. “It seems like he’s always around the football.
“He plays with the love of the game and a passion.”
“He’s a hard hitter,” Palmer said of his teammate. “He’s small but he plays like he’s 6-2, 215 (pounds).”
Possibly the biggest unsung hero on the field is the kicker. A team’s kicker can go relatively unnoticed until he misses a game-winning field goal or graduates, leaving a void where punting and methodical extra points used to exist.
With field position at times meaning the difference in a game and reliable field-goal kicking sometimes contributing to a win or loss, a kicker is the quintessential unsung hero.
Flowery Branch sophomore Will Monday has converted on 35-of-37 point after attempts and is the third leading punter in the area with a 38-yard average.
“Will’s the kind of kid that was out here in the summertime when nobody was around and he’s kicking balls,” Shaw said. “He’s put in the hours that nobody ever knows about.”
It goes without saying that neither Flowery Branch nor Gainesville would be playing for a region championship at 7:30 Friday night at City Park without the stars. However without the stars' sidekicks and running mates, there wouldn’t be teams at all.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere at all without role players,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “It’s the unsung heroes that make football what it is.”