It made for a great conversation – and once I had time to think about it, an even better column. Challenged by a friend to list the top ten high school football players in my time of writing sports, here’s something for all of you to read and think about…and of course, disagree.
It happened over beverages. The best story ideas usually do.
This was a month ago, just days after the state baseball tournament, and a pair of friends from Columbus started the ball rolling, pining for the start of the high school football season.
The conversation drifted from the best players from 2016…to the best prospects for 2017.
There was a period of comparison, of which players today reminded us of someone from the past.
And finally, the question about which this column was conceptualized.
“How long have you been writing sports now?,” said Jerry Schneider, a college friend from Upper Arlington, former dorm mate in Lincoln Tower, and devotee’ to high school football. We’ve known each other for nearly fifty years.
“Oh, about twenty years, give or take,” I said with a chuckle. “Not all of it good, either.”
“I know,” Jerry added. “I’ve been reading you about that long. So…in that twenty years, who are the ten best high school football players you’ve seen play?”
“In person?” I asked. “That would make it a lot easier. There are so many good ones.”
“Sure,” said Schneider. “Who are the ten best you’ve seen in person? I sense a story coming out of this.”
It set my mind in motion, but way too much to comprehend – impossible to simply sit down instantly at a keyboard and start pounding away. I began to take some notes as I would think of this player, or that. There was a process of elimination; and then, a process of reinstatement as I remembered specific performances in specific games. To be sure, most are offensive players – skill position players – because in short sample sizes those players make a greater impression than offensive and defensive linemen.
I called Jerry just the other day.
“Hey, I think I have your story.”
“Do I know any of these guys?” he asked. “I live a hundred miles away, you know.
“Oh, I think you will have heard of a couple of them,” I assured. “As for the rest…trust me. Or better yet…Google.”
Of course some will be left out. And some will accuse me of too many beverages. But in no particular order, and in tribute to another football season soon to come – in no particular division large and small – here’s my pick of ten of the best players I remember seeing play…in person!
Kyle Gehle (quarterback, Versailles High School) … At the time that Al Hetrick was winning the last of his six state titles in Versailles, Gehle was his quarterback in 2003 and was simply one of the best playmakers in my memory. A gifted runner and more-than-adequate passer, the best thing about Gehle was his ability to make good decisions and make them on the fly. Someone once joked that Hetrick only ran six plays, and ran them out of four formations. That’s a simplification, of course, but the strong and shifty Gehle made it seem like a helluva’ lot more. “One of the smartest kids I ever coached,” Hetrick would say at the time. And that turned out to be true as Gehle went on to play basketball at Ohio Northern and get a degree in pharmacy. I know he made a lot of opponents sick on the football field…because people may have known what was coming from Al Hetrick’s offense, but with the ball in Kyle Gehle’s hands they were helpless to stop it.
Todd Boeckman (quarterback, St. Henry) … Along about the same time as Gehle, Todd Boeckman was playing quarterback in the same league (the MAC) at St. Henry, where his dad Tim was the head coach. I had heard of Boeckman’s stature and arm strength, and had to go see for myself on a cold night in Minster when the Redskins played the Wildcats. Here’s what I remember most. He was big – about 6’4” – and was the first high school quarterback I remember who could throw the football and have it make noise. That’s right, when Boeckman would throw an “out” pattern to the sideline the football would literally whistle through the air. I mean…he could throw it on a string from 30 yards, and no problem. And more, he had receivers (I don’t remember their names) with great hands that easily snatched the ball from the air like Jerry Rice. And of course, in a few years after that he was throwing those same “out” patterns in Ohio Stadium for the Buckeyes. Enough said.
A.J. Ouellette (running back, Covington High School) … His story is well-known by now as A.J. Ouellette enters his junior season as the Ohio University Bobcats’ leading rusher. After crushing every offensive record in the history of Covington football…he wasn’t recruited by Division I colleges because they were cynical about the quality of competition that yielded those records. But at 6’ and 205 pounds, Ouellette walked on at Ohio University and promptly started cracking heads in walk-on tryouts. After three days Coach Frank Solich took him aside and said, “OK, we get it. Don’t get yourself hurt, and don’t hurt anyone else. You’re on the team and you’re going to get a scholarship.” Incredibly strong (he benches 450), he also runs with 4.4 speed. And to give you an idea of his ability against all comers, with the game on the line Marion Local chose not to punt the ball and put the game in Ouellette’s hands in the 2013 Division VII regional semi-finals. “We hadn’t stopped him all night,” said Marion coach Tim Goodwin. “We probably wouldn’t have stopped him then, either.” Goodwin went for it on fourth and ten and converted to extend the winning drive.
Dan Jacob (running back, Lehman High School) … Like other good football schools, Lehman has had its share of great players, but none more clutch and dependable than former running back Dan Jacob, who played for the Cavaliers more than a decade ago. Jacob simply had great instinct as a back. He knew where the hole would be and he knew when to hit that hole. He was strong enough to break a tackle, and fast enough to elude one, too. But he was just tough to get a shot as if you were an opposing linebacker. Danny Jacob might not be the best all-time for the Cavaliers, but he was the best in my eyes.
Hunter Wilker (wide receiver, Marion Local High School) … You just don’t see that many great wide receivers in small-school football, so when you do see one they really stand out. Wilker was that kind of an athlete when he played for the Flyers from 2012-2015. He was so versatile that he was pressed into service as a running back in the state final game against Newark Catholic, as a freshman, because the starter was lost on the first series of downs in the game with a knee injury. I think he scored three touchdowns. But as a receiver I personally never saw him drop a pass in the four years that I saw him play…and he had plenty of opportunities. Wilker made every catch, and even some of the circus variety. I asked him once: “Have you ever dropped a pass in a game?” He poohed-poohed the question, kind of, as if it wasn’t that significant. But when I pressed him for an answer he finally said, “Ok, I think there was one.”
Brody Hoying (defensive back/quarterback, Coldwater High School) … Those who saw Ross Homan played at Coldwater before Brody Hoying will no doubt make the case for Homan; and the Cavalier linebacker did go on to have a great career at Ohio State. But for my money, Brody Hoying was the best, and hardest-hitting secondary player I’ve seen play in my time covering area football. He could close on a ball with such great instinct. He knew exactly when to hit a would-be receiver to jar the ball loose. And when he hit you…for his size (about 185 pounds) he really laid a wallop. It was his interception on the final play of the game that sealed the 2011 Division V title game with Kirtland. He did that as a sophomore and did nothing but improve in his final two years. In his senior season, playing quarterback, the Cavaliers had the football for nine offensive possessions against Canton Central Catholic in the Division V title game…and scored all nine times.
Kaleb Romero (quarterback/DB, Mechanicsburg High School) … Minster coach Geron Stokes was the first to tell me about Romero prior to the 2014 playoffs, as Minster played Mechanicsburg in a first round game. Quick, tough, fast, and hard to corral, he made life miserable that night for Minster before being stopped a blade of grass short of scoring the winning points at the goal line. But he was probably best known for winning four consecutive state titles in wrestling; and people at the ‘Burg will tell you that he was such a perfectionist in the classroom that he never got anything short of an ‘A’. He’ll wrestle for the Ohio State Buckeyes come fall, but I’ll remember him as one of the best football players I’ve seen.
Kurt Coleman (defensive back, Northmont High School) … People who still see him now playing the NFL may have forgotten that once not so long ago Kurt Coleman was the best defensive back of his era in the GWOC. Playing for then coach Lance Schneider, he had speed, toughness, instinct, and as much desire as one could possibly ask for. He went on to Ohio State, was just as good for Jim Tressel in his four years there, and for the past decade has made a very good living cracking heads for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings, the Chiefs, and the Carolina Panthers.
Ryan Brewer (running back, Troy High School) … Ryan Brewer could simply do it all on the football field. He set rushing and scoring records for Troy High School, he was an accomplished place kicker, he could play defense any place you put him, and most of all…he had a fire that never quit burning. Somehow spurned by Ohio State after winning Ohio’s “Mr. Football” award in 1998, he ended up at South Carolina where he had one of the college football’s most memorable “Take That” games against Ohio State in the 2001 Outback Bowl. Brewer ran wild that day against the Buckeyes, 110 yards and two touchdowns, in a 24-7 win, and to this day will tell you, “It never gets old to talk about that game.”
Brandon Saine (running back, Piqua High School) … And of course, Brandon Saine, another Ohio “Mr. Football” who led the Piqua Indians to the 2006 Division II state title and then played for four years at Ohio State before an all-too-short NFL tenure due to injury. Saine was personally the fastest high school player I’ve seen. And if ever the term “speed kills” became manifest, it was in that 2006 Division II title game where Pickerington defenders simply could not close ground on Saine, even with a good angle. A state champion sprinter, he was built strong and powerful, and combined with that speed Saine simply was a bad matchup for all but the best of high school defenders. Coming on the heels of Ryan Brewer’s remarkable career at Troy, Saine made Miami County known across the state for having produced a pair of “Mr. Football” winners who went on to even better things in college.
11) Jake Finfrock (tailback, Milton Union) … OK, one more, because everyone knows it takes eleven to play football. There have been a slew of great football players from West Milton who played for a lot of great coaches. But Jake Finfrock, the son of former Covington coach, Kevin Finfrock, made an impression on me for his quickness, toughness, desire, and an uncanny sense of balance. He probably gained more yards after initial contact than any runner I’ve seen of his size…because he wasn’t very big! He was about 5’8”…and might, I say might, have weighed 170 pounds. He single-handedly broke games and opponents’ hearts with punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns. And from the line of scrimmage…all he needed was a step and he was gone. Some will pooh-pooh my writing about him, but here’s how tough Finfrock was. After graduation he became one of the nation’s top United States Marines, and still is. Semper Fi!