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.
Managing Eric Stokes’ workload as an elite track star and multifaceted football player has been a full-time job for Eastside track coach Frankey Iverson (left) and football coach Troy Hoff. (Chip Towers/DawgNation)
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.