Albany High co-captains Jontavious Morris, left, and Roscoe Byrd — both two-way linemen for the Indians — smile as they wait to sign their national letters-of-intent with UAB during National Signing Day. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ALBANY — Jontavious Morris and Roscoe Byrd sat elbow to elbow with smiles nearly as broad as their shoulders.
As they officially committed to play football at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in front of family members, friends and coaches Wednesday in the Albany High media center, the two-way linemen were overcome with gratitude.
“It’s a blessing. It’s a true blessing,” Byrd said. “You’re sitting next to your best friend, who you are getting ready to go play with at that top level. It’s just overwhelming.”
And that’s exactly what Morris and Byrd were to the Albany High football program — a blessing.
“It’s almost like I’m losing two kids of my own,” Albany coach Felton Williams said. “They are so deserving of those scholarships. They work hard in the classroom and on the field. This is just an example of their hard work and dedication, so I am very proud of them. It’s bittersweet. You hate to see them leave, but you wish them the best.”
Co-captains of both the football and basketball teams, Morris (6-foot-1, 300 pounds) and Byrd (6-2, 314) were as successful in the classroom as they were on the field.
The honor role students were members of The Herald Dynamite Dozen team, four-year starters, graded out at over 90 percent on both sides of the ball and were named to the 1-AA All-Region team. Morris was recently named the region’s Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Herald Player of the Year award.
They’ve been best friends since they were classmates together at Turner Elementary and stayed close at Albany Middle and Albany High, where they eventually made names for themselves as two of the most dominant linemen in Southwest Georgia.
As they stood in the media center Wednesday with just months to go before they pack up and move into a dormitory as roommates for their freshman years, their thoughts went to the past.
“Just like the old times,” Morris said as he recalled the times they would stay over at each others’ houses as childhood friends. “Roscoe always played football, but I didn’t until the last year of middle school. They told me I was so big I had to get out there, so I just gave it a try.”
They were always challenging and pushing each other to be the best they could be, to see who could rise the highest.
Their dreams were even higher.
“Back then you go around playing in the backyard and thinking that you are somebody,” Byrd said. “You say, ‘I’m going to be this, or I’m going to be that.’ We were just kids playing. Now coming up into our senior year and signing with a Division I college, that doesn’t come around often. Getting to live it out, that’s great.”
Greatness was something the duo earned at Albany High, where Williams said they left an impact that will be felt for years.
“They have set the bar really high,” said Williams, whose Indians finished 2-8 in 2010 and then 4-6 in 2011. “If any of these young men following behind them can do half the things they have done, then I think the program is heading in the right direction. Those are two extremely big shoes to fill, but they have laid the foundation.”
It’s a fresh foundation for the Indians’ program, which had been scarred by winless seasons and a mass exodus three years ago when then-head coach Reggie Mitchell left the program to take the head coaching job at Sherwood Christian, taking most of the team’s talent with him. But Byrd said the challenges that came with those seasons only made him — and his best friend — tougher.
“It was tough,” Byrd said. “It wasn’t an easy road, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth it.”
MCMILLIAN TAKES TALENTS TO CHATTANOOGA:
ALBANY — Wearing a shirt and tie and standing in the Monroe library, Vantrel McMillian brought his hands to his chest and mimicked NFL quarterback Cam Newton’s popular Superman celebration.
“Maybe after a sack I do the Cam Newton,” said McMillian, Monroe’s star defensive end who committed to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Wednesday during National Signing Day. “That’s my favorite, other than just going crazy.”
That celebration was typically reserved for one of McMillian’s 10 sacks he had his senior season.
But he had plenty to celebrate Wednesday afternoon. With offers from schools like Albany State and Fort Valley State, McMillian ultimately decided to take his talents to Chattanooga — a Division I FCS program that is coming off a 6-5 season where they were briefly ranked nationally in the Top 25.
“The offer that they gave me surpassed everybody else, and when I went to visit the campus, the academic and athletic programs were amazing,” said McMillian, who also had 76 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and an interception return for a TD his senior season. “I was sold when I got there.”
The 6-foot-2, 220 pound defensive end wasn’t always breaking through offensive lines and doing celebrations after bringing down quarterbacks.
It was a long journey to the top for McMillian, who didn’t start his freshman year and didn’t start to get noticed by college programs until his junior year.
“He was trying to find himself,” Monroe coach Charles Truitt said. “He didn’t play much his freshman year, but every year he got better. His junior year he shined, and this year he took it to another level. Once he got confidence in what he was doing, he reached those heights we thought he could.”
Things definitely changed his senior season when he helped guide the Tornadoes to a 6-6 record and a near upset of No. 6 Gainesville in the second round of the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs.
“He was relentless getting to the quarterback,” Truitt said. “He had the ability to lock down an entire side of the line. It was a big plus for our defense.”
And that’s exactly what the Chattanooga coaches have told him to focus on in college.
“Sack the quarterback,” he said. “I need to get where the ball is. I gotta get that quarterback. I gotta get my sacks.”