Former Deerfield star Tony Zenon, right, will see the field at RB and kick returner this year.
ATLANTA -- Mariellen Bateman went to what was formerly known as the Suburban Extended Stay in Albany this week and took a picture.
She sent it to those she considers her extended family, a group of 26 that trudged east six years ago after Hurricane Katrina laid siege to their homes in New Orleans. It was a reminder of their journey together these past few years.
Tony Zenon, the former Deerfield-Windsor running back and 2010 Herald Player of the Year who amassed more than 5,600 rushing yards and 65 touchdowns after making a new home in Albany, is part of that family and would later celebrate his 13th birthday at that Albany hotel, which was one of the few that weren't filled by those evacuating New Orleans.
Today, he'll play his first college football game at Georgia Tech when the Jackets host Western Carolina in the season opener at 7:30 p.m.
"It hasn't settled in that I'm going to be on TV playing football," Zenon, a redshirt freshman who will don the blue and gold in full pads for the first time and see game action, told The Herald by telephone Tuesday. "I haven't gotten nervous yet, but I'm pretty sure once I run out of that tunnel I might be pretty nervous."
Bateman will be there in Atlanta with Zenon's family watching and wearing the Jackets' colors. She was partly responsible for the Zenons' extended stay in Albany. As the family drove more than 20 hours after the storm in three different vehicles six years ago, Zenon's grandmother called the Albany Suburban Extended Stay, now InTown Suites, asking about rooms.
Bateman had planned a trip by air out of Albany that day, but it was cancelled due to the weather. She sat watching those evacuating New Orleans and thought that her late husband, Dr. Dan Bateman, would want her to do something for those stranded. She flipped through the telephone directory and happened to call the same hotel the Zenons were inquiring about at the same time.
"The operator placed me on hold and then came back to report that she was speaking to a lady who had a family of 26 looking for lodging, but they had run out of financial resources at that point," Bateman said. "She asked if I would be responsible for all those people ... "
"Yes - me and the good Lord. Please tell them you have room," she recalled.
And so the journey began. Bateman and her daughter, Jennifer Bonner, as well as the young adults at Porterfield United Methodist Church, immediately jumped at the chance to help the Zenon family with food, clothing, job searches and much more.
The Albany Board of Realtors helped facilitate housing for the families and the Zenons settled into the community, just as Tony has done on The Flats off North Avenue. For Bateman, her intention of helping a family in need has been reversed.
"I believe I may think more in terms of the impact Tony and his entire family has had on my life," Bateman said. "Maybe I had a part in making a difference during a most vulnerable time in his early teen years. A number of special people in Albany positively impacted me during that same season of my life. Selfishly speaking, I suppose I get a warm feeling thinking about my opportunity to pay it forward."
Now, just a year into his career at Georgia Tech, they call him "Tony Phenom."
"(A-Back) Roddy (Jones) called me that and then the other guys started calling me that," said Zenon, a 5-foot-8, 170-pound A-Back for the Jackets.
Zenon spent a season on the scout team while redshirting, earning the honor of dressing out twice last year by winning scout team player of the week. Although he started at Deerfield almost immediately once he stepped on campus, it took Zenon some time at Tech to pick up the offensive playbook.
"It was humbling," Zenon said. "I really hadn't sat out that much since I've been playing football. I pretty much needed it."
The Tech kids are smart, evidenced by the 'A' Zenon picked up in Calculus over the summer, but even an MIT grad would need more than a month of summer practice to pick up Paul Johnson's triple-option offense.
Zenon said he's picked it up and has confidence on the field now. He'll get a chance to prove it tonight, although starting A-Back Jones, who was considered doubtful earlier this week, will play. Jones was one of Zenon's biggest fans this summer after seeing the redshirt freshman in the running back rotation.
"He's like a phantom out there," Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when asked about Zenon. "One time, you see him, and the next second, he's going the other way. The first time he got out there and ran, we knew he was legit. He can fly. And when you got a guy who stands out like that with his speed, that's the end of it. No one doubts him for any reason."
Johnson rotates his backs frequently, although Zenon said he wasn't sure how much he would play in the opener. Zenon will likely see time at A-Back with Jones, Orwin Smith and Embry Peeples.
Zenon recently changed his jersey to No. 9, which was worn by last year's starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt. It's a welcome switch and more streamlined than the No. 47 he wore a season ago.
"That 47 wasn't really a running back number," Zenon said.
He's also listed as the backup punt returner and could get a shot there at some point this season. Zenon will be running behind a young Tech offensive line that is only one of six FBS schools in the nation without a senior starter.
"I don't want to say (it's a concern)," Zenon said of the offensive line. "I think it's close to being better than it was last year. Of course, they're going to make mistakes, but I think we'll be alright."
Georgia Tech went 6-7 a year ago, but Zenon likes the makeup of the team this season and the added awareness the backfield has of holding onto the football.
"We'll play together as a unit," he said. "I think we'll be a lot better team. What killed us last year was turnovers. We've been doing a good job with ball security."
A non-divided house
For anyone with Bateman's background, it might be difficult to put on the Jackets' colors. She's a Georgia Bulldog fan. A big one.
She has season tickets to UGA football, baseball, basketball and gymnastics; a pharmacy degree from Athens; and her son, John, is Director of Marketing for the UGA Athletic Association.
"I will be wearing blue and gold at Bobby Dodd Stadium pulling every moment for Tony and his team," Bateman said. "We are all so thrilled for this education opportunity for him as well as his lifelong dream to play college football."
Of course, she'll have to switch over to the red and black Saturday at the Georgia Dome when her alma mater faces Boise State. This season, though, she'll pull for a player who lines up against the Bulldogs. Zenon is glad to have her on his side and in his life.
"She's still a Georgia fan, but I'm trying to turn her into a Tech fan," Zenon joked. "She's excited. I'm glad that she's going to be there (tonight)."