By MATTHEW BROWN
Journal Sports Writer
Out of all of the Perry High School football players emotionally moved by the first-quarter scene from the Oct. 5 game with West Laurens, none could have had more empathy for injured teammate Tyler McGee than senior Marquez Thomas.
In the same location, Herb St. John Stadium, and two days short of one full year to the date, Thomas had his own scary moment in a Panther football game. Playing linebacker in a key region contest with Baldwin, Thomas suffered a neck injury that required several moments of attention before he was carted away to a hospital for further treatment.
“I was going for a ‘kill shot,’ really,” said Thomas, recalling the play after Perry’s Wednesday morning practice. “The offensive tackle just came by and took me out. I was just laying there and my neck started to feel swollen and I couldn’t move it.”
There were no concussion symptoms, and Thomas was able to recover well enough to be back on the field two weeks later. Perry just happened to be playing rival Peach County High at home.
“I was on defense, and I would be thinking ‘I hope I don’t hurt my neck again,’” he said.
There were no further injuries in that game for Thomas or any of the other Perry High contests, including a thrilling back-and-forth home win against Westside High that put the Panthers back in the state playoffs. The junior at that time had such a good offseason that he was talked into trying out high school soccer for the first time.
Thomas is used to jumping from one side of the football to the other. For the previous two seasons under head coach Stacey Harden, Thomas was a part of the three-back T-formation in situations deep in opponents’ territory. Sometimes, he would be the one getting the football, and he had touchdowns to his credit.
Halfway through his senior season, Thomas found himself taking on a running back role full time. Perry, at 0-2 in Region 2-AAAA, needed an offensive boost. Thomas provided that with a big 83-yard rushing night against West Laurens with one touchdown.
It was his second score of the season, the other one coming on a kickoff return at Baldwin High the week before.
Even though he knew he would be a running back against the Raiders, the role expanded to that of fullback when Sean Swan had to play tight end for the injured McGee.
“I was upset,” said Thomas about his emotions during the timeout. “Last year, my injury was at about the same time. This year, I don’t know what happened.”
For the first time as a Panther, Thomas didn’t play a snap on defense in a game.
“I’m just trying to do what’s best to help the team win,” he said. “(Scoring a touchdown) feels pretty good when your fans are cheering. I’m a running back for now, but coach said he’s still going to put me on defense if they need me.
“When you carry the ball, you get hit and score. On defense, you just have to hit. Either hit, or be hit.”
That’s how he compares those two roles, and it seems like he could take it either way.
Harden, when he arrived at Perry from Warner Robins High, knew he had something special in the sophomore Thomas. Therefore, Thomas had a spot in the starting lineup and made All-Region.
“’I figured you that were going to be a pretty good guy when I first came here,’” Thomas quoted his coach. “Football means a lot. I’ve been playing since I was 4. Every year … I just like playing the game. No matter where, I’ll play the game of football.”
Thomas also recalls making a ‘rib-rocker’ hit in a middle school championship game.
“I played (soccer) just to see how I would do,” said Thomas about the new sport he took up. “I scored four or five goals. I had a couple of teammates say I should play soccer. ‘You’re pretty fast.’ Our track coach got really mad because I didn’t run track. It was the first time I’d ever been on a soccer field.”
Thomas is undecided now if he will play again this spring. At that time, he may be already set to be a college football player in the fall of 2013. He has already visited Middle Tennessee State, Eastern Kentucky and a place he said he liked the most, Jacksonville State.
“I’d like to be a coach one day if I can,” he said. What are Thomas’ football influences? “I really like watching Alabama play because they play hard-nosed football, backyard, just run the ball down your throat. And I like Ray Lewis.”
It’s bye week for all of Region 2-AAAA football. Up next for Perry will be the most meaningful matchup in the young series between the Panthers and the Veterans High Warhawks. That’s because Veterans is in front of Perry in the region with a 2-1 record.
Harden and the Panthers will go in looking to build on that first league win, 31-0, against West Laurens at home. Perry’s offense went from producing seven first-half points to 24 in the second, mainly by keeping the Raider defense out of the backfield.
“I think it was just a matter of want-to,” said Harden about the halftime adjustments. “I think we realized we could move the football if we didn’t make any mistakes. We didn’t have too many mistakes in the second half.
“We also got good field position and was able to take advantage of it. The running game got going, something that’s been difficult for us this year. Mark (Riley) and Marquez had good games.
“(Marquez) is a great athlete. Not only that, but he’s a good football player, and better than that he’s a great kid. We primarily wanted to play him on defense, but he’s worked on offense all along. It’s not like he had to do it all in one week. It was a big bonus for us.”
After the injury to McGee, Harden said they cut the game plan down to about a third.
“Thank goodness for Sean Swan being able to step in there,” said Harden. “We had to coach him on the run in between series and it worked out.”
The most consistent part of Perry’s season has been the defensive play. Harden said it was a “lights out” effort last week executing coordinator Carl Dixon’s plan.
“There were a couple of times it looked like they were getting a drive together, and the defense rose up, took care of business and shut the door,” he said. “Devonte Danielly came back from injury. That’s what helped us be able to bring Marquez over. Of course Jamal Bagley and Shawn Green and Tyrone Parker and Larante Noble all did a good job. A couple of young kids, Chad Howard and Jemarcus Davis made some plays.”
As for the rest of this season, Harden said they are certainly looking to run the table, but as always it’s one game at a time.
“We have to worry about the next game. That’s the only thing we can control,” he said. “Hat’s off to (Veterans). They’ve done a good job this year.”