The Herald Bulletin

October 15, 2013

Paving the way

By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

---- — ELWOOD — Sometime before the end of this school year, Chase Duncan has a difficult decision to make.

He can go to Hanover and continue his football career, or he could head to Indiana University and begin taking pre-med courses on his way to a career as a doctor of radiology.

Hayden Ferguson plans to jump straight into the work force in construction management, and Craig Jackson is on his way to Grace College in the northern part of the state where he'll study physical therapy.

Jake Nutt is just a junior, but he already knows he wants to become a police officer. And Ethan Morris is the youngster of the group, just a sophomore in his fall semester with the majority of his high school career still in front of him.

These are the Elwood linemen whose job it is each week to open cracks for record-chasing running back Sammy Mireles to slip through. And it doesn't take much daylight to set Mireles free.

"It's so fun just to block for him," Ferguson said after Tuesday's early evening practice. "You just get in the way of a defender and do your job, then he does the rest."

"With a running back as good as him," Duncan added, "you don't have to work as hard."

True to form, the linemen are being modest.

It takes a certain type of player to strap on the pads each week and crash into the guy across from him on every snap. Especially when all the glory is going to someone else.

The kids that choose to do this dirty job, however, revel in it.

And this group of Panthers now has the chance to be a part of history. Mireles needs 211 yards Friday night at Alexandria to become the state's all-time leading rusher.

The linemen aren't likely to be aware of the moment former Cathedral star Otis Shannon's record falls, but they're looking forward to it just the same.

"We'll probably all run out and hug him or something," Morris said.

Much like the 5-foot-9, 170-pound back they block for, the Elwood linemen don't fit the hulking persona many might expect from a record-setting unit. These aren't bulldozers leveling the playing field before them.

How does an undersized group clear blocking lanes when every player on the field — and every fan in the stands — is well aware No. 24 is about to get the football?

"Will," Morris said.

"Heart," Duncan added.

"Family," Jackson replied.

Unity is the key to Elwood's success.

Every piece of the puzzle must work in tandem to form a clear overall picture. Mireles' elusiveness and creativity can erase some mistakes, but football is the ultimate team game and no one player can succeed on his own.

The fact the star has such an engaging personality only aids the cause.

"He's so level-headed," said Nutt, the starting center. "He's not cocky or arrogant or anything like that."

When a linemen makes a mistake, Mireles isn't likely to scream. He'll walk over and tap the player on the butt and encourage him for the next play.

"You can talk to him," said Jackson, who works inside at guard along with Morris.

The tackles — Ferguson and Duncan — have to be aware of the almost constant cutbacks Mireles is making behind them. And everyone on the line is challenged to keep up with Mireles' speed.

But when things go right, even the players on the field sometimes get caught up in the view.

"Once he gets about 10 yards downfield, if you're not supposed to be down there with him, it's a chance to watch him run," Duncan said. "It's amazing. It seems like ESPN."

Amazing is a word often heard around Mireles. Crazy is another. He does things on the football field at times that are difficult to describe.

Like bouncing off a free defender, knocking him to the ground and running 15 yards in the opposite direction. Or zig-zagging across the field as many as four times in each direction before bursting through a hole only he can see and running toward the end zone. Or stopping on a dime to let a defender pass, then making one cut and becoming a blur somewhere in the distant horizon.

"He really never stops, even when the odds are against him," Jackson said. "He just steps up and does his job."

Ferguson has been lining up in front of Mireles for three seasons, the longest-tenured of the linemen. He said the most amazing performance he's seen came two years ago when the then-sophomore running back amassed a school-record 429 yards at Oak Hill.

"It seemed like every play was going for a touchdown," he said.

But the linemen all agree the best is yet to come.

"We will play deep into November," Duncan said, referencing the Panthers' goal of winning the school's first secitonal title since 2000. "I expect at some point, in one of those games, the greatest moment will happen."

A pretty big one might await Friday night.

There's a great sense of pride within the program that one of their own is so close to a record so prestigious. And when that mark falls — whether it happens this week at Alexandria or next week in the first round of the sectional — it's a moment that will linger.

"We're going to carry this with us for the rest of our life," Ferguson said. "I can tell my kids I blocked for the state's leading rusher."