Rontae Norman is not the most hotly recruited player on the Lincoln County team.
He's not even second or third in terms of college attention on their back-to-back Class A championship team.
But he was the best player the Red Devils had.
In the Red Devils' constellation of heavenly bodies, Norman was the star who burned the brightest. He grabbed nine interceptions this year and returned three of those for touchdowns. He scored three rushing touchdowns as a reserve running back. The 5-foot-9 senior caught four touchdowns passes. He scored on a 75-yard kickoff return and a 75-yard punt return.
That's the main body of work for The Augusta Chronicle's 2006 All-Area Georgia Football Player of the Year.
"Wherever there was a big play that No. 9 was smack dab in the middle of it," Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell said.
Campbell shies away from individual recognition of his players and prefers to stress the team. That's why he never releases his individual statistics to the media during the season.
But in this instance, he made an exception for an exceptional high school player.
"We have so many players deserving of recognition," Campbell said. "We've got two seniors that will play Division I-A football because of their potential that played very well this year. But the player of the year stuff should be about what players do on a high school field. It would be a disservice to Rontae if any player on our team was singled out for their accomplishments ahead of him."
Norman has 17 interceptions the past two seasons. His 54-yard run in the Class A semifinal against Commerce swung that game. His 54-yard punt return against Clinch County set up the first score in the state title game. He recovered Clinch's last-gasp on-side kick with his team holding a 21-14 in the final minutes.
There were at least a dozen plays he made like that which never resulted in a touchdown.
"He was our big-play guy whenever we really needed it," Campbell said. "Big play every time you turned around. ... He just breaks so well on the ball in the air. He's as good a player as we have ever had in doing that."
That has to do with football smarts more than anything else. Norman is plenty fast, but he brought up four teammates he knew were faster than he was.
"I read the receivers and what they will do," he said. "Then at the same time I look at the quarterback to see just where and when he will throw the ball. You have to do both at the same time to be able to read plays like that."
He's not heavily recruited because of academic hardships.
"I have a learning disability," he said. "Reading comprehension is the hardest thing. ... I also had bad freshman and sophomore years in the classroom, that's pretty tough to make up for."
Norman will have a chance to play college football provided he buckles down in class and passes his high school graduation tests.
"I am going to try to go to Georgia Military and get my all my grades in order," he said. "Then I will transfer to somewhere else."
If every Red Devil was asked who was the best player on the field, the popular answer would be Rontae Norman. He would be the unanimous pick among the Lincoln County coaching staff.
But recruiters pass Norman by because of hardships in the classroom.
"It hurts a little when the recruiters are after everyone else," he said. "It hurts because I knew I should've been getting my work done in class and then they would be talking to me, too."
The players who advance to the next level aren't always the best on their team. The right blend of academics, physical size and potential often outweighs production these days.
Norman understands he needs to execute with a pencil over the next few months. He knows he has set the wrong example for a player in the classroom.
That's the only blemish.
"There's no finer example of a kid than Rontae as far as manners, respect and getting to practice on time with the right attitude every day," Campbell said.
He's a popular guy after victories. Children seek him out and congratulate him after games.
"It makes me play better because I know they look up to me the way I used to look up to guys like Rick Stokes. But if they asked me about my grades I would tell them I was lazy and didn't get my work done like I should have. I'd tell them not to take after me for that."
College football needs more players with attitudes like that.
Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or email@example.com.
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