COVINGTON – There are track guys who play football, and there are football players who run track. Then there are those rare individuals who do both at an exceptionally high level.
Remember “Bullet” Bob Hayes and Willie Gault? Deion Sanders came through the NFL after them, and Allen Rossum more recently. They were all elite-level sprinters who could utilize that speed to great effect on the gridiron.
The coaches at Eastside High School believe they have one of those athletic rarities in their midst. And they will ship him off to the University of Georgia on a football scholarship in less than a month.
Eric Stokes Jr. actually has made a bigger name for himself in high school on the track. He literally has been winning state track championships of all kinds since his sophomore year. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound sprinter will attempt to haul four more titles back to Covington when he competes in the state meet later this week in Rome.
But he has managed to do that without the obsessive training regimen that is usually characteristic of such elite sprinters. Stokes, we’re told, is actually a football player who just happens to run a little track from January to May each year.
“People see his times and they think he’s a track kid playing football,” said Frankey Iverson, Eastside’s track coach and the receivers coach for the football team. “Eric didn’t start running track until his freshman year in high school. He doesn’t do any summer track. It’s just January to May for him; that’s when he runs track. Anything other than that is football. Track is just something we had him do to work on his speed.”
Well, if that’s the case, it’s working.
Shocking the clock
The first time the Eagles realized what kind of swiftness they had on their hands was the first time they put a clock on Stokes on the track. As a freshman, he was timed at 11.3 seconds without so much as a tutorial. He’d go on to record a 10.9 that year; 10.72 seconds won state.
So that was Stokes’ goal heading into his sophomore year. When track season rolled around, he obsessed about putting a 10.71 on the clock. Unfortunately, he was so focused on that goal that he pulled a hamstring.
It happened relatively early in the season, but Stokes never recovered completely. Meantime, Iverson had him run longer distances in practice. They found that he still could go fast at 400 meters without putting much strain on his hamstring. As Stokes consistently put up sub-50-second times while not going full out, Iverson suggested he just focus on that a while.
Stokes ended up winning the Class AAAA championship in the 400 at the end of that season. He ran it in 47.9 seconds despite almost falling from a stumble in the final turn.
“The bigger the meet, the better he seems to run,” Iverson said.
Unless your name is Michael Johnson or Edwin Moses, running and training for 400-meter races is challenging. Running as hard as one can for the full circumference of a track hurts and often makes contents designed to stay in the body find their way out. Few in their right mind volunteer to do that to themselves.
But like it or not, Stokes was the defending state 400-meter champion as a junior. So, naturally, everybody expected him to defend that title.
However, Stokes had a different idea. At the last regular-season meet before region, he offered his coach a proposition.
“He said, ‘I haven’t run the 100 since my freshman year. What do you think of me running the 100 in this meet?’ ” Iverson said.
“I said, ‘That’s fine. I guess you can do that.’ ”
Stokes wasn’t done.
“Tell you what: If I run the fastest time in our classification, will you let me stay with the 100?” he said.
Iverson knew that the best time in the state to that point had been 10.69 seconds. Realizing that Stokes had run 10.9 as a freshman, the coach figured his brash young pupil might be able to run 10.85 or 10.8. If he got under that, it wouldn’t be by much.
“So I was like, ‘OK, if you run the fastest time in the state, you can run the 100 instead,’ ” Iverson said, believing his was a safe bet.
Stokes was excited now. He was jacked up the rest of the week and positively giddy on race day. He was playful about it, but he didn’t let his coach forget what was on the line.
“We get to the meet and he can’t contain himself,” Iverson said. “He goes out, the gun fires and he’s absolutely flying down the track. You could tell it was fast. We clock him, and I can’t believe it.”
Iverson and his fellow track coaches looked at their stopwatches, then looked at each other. But nothing is official until it’s posted on the scoreboard. Then it is.
He’d run 10.67.
“He just smiles and points,” Iverson said with a laugh. “I said, ‘OK, OK, I’ll take you out of the 4 and put you in the 1.’ ”
Little could they have known where Stokes would take it from there. As has continually been the case with this kid, he went lower. When he reached the state championships, Stokes routinely was blistering the competition. He won the 100 meters in a classification-record 10.39 seconds.
While he was at it, Stokes also won the Class AAAA title in the 200 (21.58 seconds) and ran the anchor leg for the championship-winning 4×100-meter race. The only time Stokes didn’t walk to the tallest podium on the medal stand was after the 4×400 race. They finished sixth.
Not surprisingly, the Eagles brought the Class AAAA team championship home with them.
Football still first
After that, Stokes’ track career understandably took off. Or at least, it could have. Invitations came flooding in to run in elite-level national races. He went to only one and almost missed that one.
Stokes ignored an email invitation that sat in his inbox for several weeks. He finally showed it to Coach Iverson, who assured him that the Adidas Dream 100 was a legit event and he should accept their invitation to fly him there. Iverson accompanied Stokes to the IAAF event and watched him win yet again. Despite stumbling out of the blocks on a slow, makeshift track in the middle of a downtown Boston street, Stokes beat the elite field in 10.5 seconds.
Regardless of Stokes’ track successes, football always has been his first love. He has played the game since he was 6 years old and always has been the best on the field. It always has been his life’s goal to play football in college and then in the NFL. So running down a football scholarship is where Stokes wanted to expend most of his energy.
Unfortunately for Stokes, his speed and athleticism came with an asterisk with regard to his college football prospects. His academic numbers were not as impressive as those he was posting on the field and the track. He had work to do if some university was going to open its doors with a grant-in-aid.
“School hasn’t always been easy for him,” football coach Troy Hoff said. “It’s probably never been easy. That is part of his story. That was a question and a concern with some of [the schools] where he was at academically. Everybody saw the skills. The big question for a lot of them was, ‘Is he going to make it?’ ”
Stokes is a bit of a mystery man when it comes to his personal life. He repeatedly declined interviews for this story, and few accounts have been written about him in which he goes into any detail about his home life.
Hoff grudgingly fills in some of the blanks.
Stokes’ parents, Brandie Maddox and Eric Stokes Sr., are divorced. He spent a lot of time shuttling between their two homes, which created a strain at times. Both parents struggled to make ends meet financially. It’s a stressful existence familiar to a lot of Americans, especially those trying to make it in suburbia.
“Home life hasn’t always been easy,” Hoff said. “There have been some transitions between Mom and Dad, being divorced. His grandmother [Bonnie Maddox] is a strong person in his life. His sister [Corin “Coco” Stokes] has been a strong influence in his life. She’s in college now, and they’re real tight. He’s had good support, but it hasn’t been easy.”
Like Stokes, none of his family members responded to requests to be interviewed.
It often has been said “it takes a village to raise a child,” and Covington and the Eastside community rallied around Stokes. Between extra tutoring, summer school and the like, Stokes made headway with his academics. He’ll enter the University of Georgia on June 1 as an NCAA full qualifier.
“He straightened himself out at the end of his junior year and came through and put himself in good position to finish, and that was huge,” Hoff said. “The light kind of went on for him. He’s gotten a lot of guidance from a lot of folks. He’s a great kid with a great personality. People like him.”
There’s certainly a lot to like as a football player. Not only does Stokes bring the rare gift of elite speed to the field but he also brings size and strength.
Weeks before packing his bags for Athens, Stokes stands a shade below 6-foot-1. And while he has the long, slender legs typical of a world-class sprinter, he’s strong and thick up top. His football coaches at Eastside have kept him busy in the weight room. He’s a solid 175 pounds and will weigh more once UGA applies its daily training table.
“He’s not just a fast guy. He’s got the body,” Hoff said. “He’s over 175 pounds. He’s almost 6-1. He’s long. He’s that prototype corner that runs better than most his size.”
Eastside utilized him all sorts of ways on the football field. He was primarily a running back as a sophomore. As a junior, he was all over the place. He spent some of his time as a running back, some as a wide receiver and always has returned kicks. As a junior, he had about 800 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving, according to Hoff. Stokes also played in a situational capacity on defense.
But after getting sized up in recruiting camps last summer, Stokes’ future was forecasted on defense. Hoff and Iverson concurred, and Stokes spent almost his entire senior season playing cornerback for the Eagles, who went 7-3-1.
“We were able to get him touches on special teams and a little on offense,” Hoff said. “We tried to be smart managing him. It’s a long season. I would’ve liked to get him more touches, but there were games that we didn’t have to, where we could get by. He had a pretty heavy workload.”
What kind of cornerback has Stokes become? It’s a subject on which Hoff doesn’t mind expounding.
“He’s still got room to grow,” Hoff said. “Pretty much any corner coming out of high school who jumps to the SEC is going to need some development because you’re going to face things you’ve never seen. But his development over the year going back to last summer before his senior year, he’s come a long ways. He’s been a student of the position and getting comfortable with the things corners do, not just relying on speed. His technique got solid. He wasn’t afraid to jump up and play bump-and-run or press coverage and playing with his back to the ball. He got a lot of experience in a short time, I’d say.
“But he’s got a high ceiling. That’s what everybody sees about him. He’s got physical gifts that only a few guys in the nation have, which is reach, height and, obviously, the speed. If he can continue to develop the way he has, it’s a lot of upside.”
Still running down records
The workload of competing at a high level in two sports contributed to some knee issues for Stokes. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair some cartilage and meniscus damage on the same day he signed his national letter of intent with the Bulldogs in February.
That little setback is what makes Stokes’ accomplishments on the track this spring that much more remarkable. Despite missing the first couple of months of the season while rehabbing his injury, he has picked up where he left off.
“He came out and had two days of practice and ran a 10.6,” Hoff said with a grin. “He sort of rolled out of bed running.”
Stokes had to get going fast if he hoped to defend any of his state titles. And, to be clear, it IS his hope to defend those titles. To do that, Stokes had to get up to speed in time for the state-qualifying meet.
On April 29, Stokes clocked yet another 10.39 to blow away the 100-meter field at Cross Creek High School in Augusta. He also has qualified to defend his 200-meter championship and will compete in the 4×100- and 4×400-meter relays. He’d run in more events but two individual races and two relays is all the Georgia High School Association will allow.
— Coach Iverson (@Coach_Iverson) April 29, 2017
As for the illustrious 100-meter dash, there’s a long way to go to track down the overall state high school record of 10.12 established by Coffee County’s Tyreek Hill in 2012. But nobody’s going to be surprised about anything Stokes does going forward.
“He could put up a big number before it’s all said and done,” Hoff said, shrugging. “If he’s feeling good on the right day on the right track, he could go lower.”
Regardless of what happens in Rome, Stokes knows his future is in football. He has entertained the notion of also running track at Georgia but acknowledged to DawgNation’s Jeff Sentell that “it wouldn’t hurt me if I do not.”
No, for Stokes, it remains football first. He just happens to be a cornerback who can run very, very fast on the track. For him, the goal is to become elite in that contact sport that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to stadiums across the country each fall.
“Coach [Mel] Tucker [the Bulldogs defensive coordinator] says he can mold me into what I need to be, but he can’t give me that speed,” Stokes said when he last spoke on the subject. “I’ve had to show everybody every week that I am more than just a speedster.”
He is much more than that, but good, old raw speed is a nice asset to have.
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