The year was 1998. Washington County's Takeo Spikes had money to burn. His rookie contract with the Cincinnati Bengals paid him an instant $3.6 million signing bonus and $7.5 million over five years.
He bought himself a townhouse in Atlanta. Spikes thanked his parents with a 5, 500-square foot palace on eight acres as well.
That was life's candy.
His job was the cavity. The Bengals went 3-13 his rookie year. They would go 4-12 in 1999. That was when he'd had enough.
It was a stark contrast to high school. Spikes' teams at Washington County were region champions and among the top four in the state in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
"The losing just got to me," Spikes said. "We were dominant in high school and successful in college. I realized some of the guys in those training camps with me didn't know what football was all about. I don't know if they would have made it through my high school training camps. They didn't know you had to pay a price to win."
Teammates said it was just a business. The veterans told Spikes not to take it personally.
"It was contrary to everything I had learned about football playing in Washington County," Spikes said. "I finally hit my limit."
So Spikes cried. Right in front of his locker. The millions he'd earned couldn't soothe his pride.
"I was like, 'How can I not take this personally?' " Spikes said. "This is my livelihood. This is my childhood dream come true to play in the NFL. And here it was a nightmare every time we played a game.
"How could I not take that to heart? Football was what I loved to do. God gave me the ability to play football, and here I was on a team that didn't seem to care it was losing at all."
That is no shock to those who knew him at Washington County.
"He was the most-driven and goal-oriented player I have ever been around," Washington County coach Rick Tomberlin said. "Takeo always burned to be a champion. I wasn't surprised when he became an All-Pro in the National Football League."
Spikes won the state championship his senior year at Washington County in 1994.
"I went out with a title," Spikes said. "I walked off that field for the last time as a Washington County player knowing that the first chapter of my football life was completed in the best way."
Spikes, now a 6-foot-2, 242-pound linebacker with the Buffalo Bills, didn't start until his sophomore year in Sandersville. He never played linebacker in high school - he was a tight end and defensive end. He didn't suit up at linebacker until he went to Auburn.
"That was a special year," Spikes said of his sophomore season. "It was coach Tomberlin's first year. The year we started to build something at Washington County."
The building blocks were laid out with tons of sweat and an insatiable hunger that could only be fed by wins.
"I can still hear Coach Tomberlin to this day," Spikes said. "He always used to shout, 'You're either getting better or getting worse today. You never stay the same,' on the practice field.' That's never left me through all my levels of football."
Tomberlin remembers the greatness inherent in Spikes on a Friday night. There was a 14-14 game against Mary Persons in front of the biggest crowd to watch a Class AA game in the history of Georgia high school football.
A superb running back named Quentin Davis was chewing up yardage against his team. His number was called again on an off-tackle play by legendary Bulldogs coach Dan Pitts.
"Spikes meets that young man helmet-to-helmet on that play and just decimates him," Tomberlin said. "It was the single greatest hit I have ever seen in high school football.
"The stadium was set underneath hills. I tell you that hit sounded like a rifle shot from the tree-line from those hills. We dominated that team from that point. One hit totally changed the tone of that football game."
Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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