HAMPTON — Sometimes the role goes to the young prodigy, who grasps it and never lets go. Sometimes it's handed to the next in line, who had paid his dues to get there.
Either way, it's a coronation. To play tailback at Phoebus, which has turned out a 1,000-yard rusher every year since the final months of the Clinton Administration, is a badge of honor.
"You have to live up to it, make big plays and keep the tradition going," said Tyree Lee, the latest to line up 7 yards deep in the Phantoms' I formation. "I was hoping I would be the tailback here one day. And today, I am."
Going into Friday night's showdown against Hampton, Lee is leading the Peninsula District in rushing with 1,013 yards. Phoebus has had a 1,000-yard rusher for 11 straight seasons, starting with Travis McCright in 2000. And with a playoff run, Lee could give the Phantoms a 2,000-yard rusher for the sixth time in that span.
Lee is the sixth different back to start for Phoebus since 2000, and like Colby Goodwyn before him, the job will be his for only one year. That's because, like Goodwyn, he had to wait his turn as the backup.
Shawne Alston and Dennis Mathis started two seasons each. Elan Lewis and McCright each started three seasons. (As a sophomore in 1999, McCright finished with 765 yards).
"Part of it is the system," said Bill Dee, Phoebus' coach from 1985-2008. "And we were always fortunate enough to find one guy who was a hell of back."
His first hell of a back, Dee said, was David Brown in 1987. He wasn't your typical story: He played guard as a junior before rushing for 1,492 yards as a senior. Then came Maurice Turner and T.J. Carrington. Then came the Phantoms' first true superstar.
Antwoine Womack rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns in his first game as a 15-year-old freshman in 1993. He ended up setting a Group AAA career record with 5,570 yards. That would be broken eight years later by … well, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
After Womack's departure in 1995, the Phantoms went three years without a 1,000-yard rusher. It was tailback by committee in 1997 and '98, and McCright took over midway through his sophomore year. He ran for 1,126 yards in 2000 and 2,140 (then a district record) in '01 as Phoebus won its first state championship.
Then came Lewis. He became the first player in PD history to break 2,000 in the regular season. His 7,156 career yards remain a Group AAA record.
Next was Mathis, who ran for 3,244 in two seasons. Then Alston, who after transferring from Menchville picked up 1,684 yards as a junior and 2,278 as a senior.
Goodwyn followed in 2009 and finished 131 yards short of 2,000. And now, it's Lee's turn.
It was always one great back. Check that: At least one great back.
"In 2002, everybody kidded me that I didn't have to do any work," said Phoebus coach Stan Sexton, who was the Phantoms' running backs coach then. "I had Elan Lewis, Philip Brown, Maurice Boone, and a kid named Demarcus Holden. I had four guys who would have started for any team in Virginia at tailback.
"I remember (Dee) telling me, 'With great running backs, there's not much coaching. Just make sure they know which direction to run and leave them alone.' That's pretty much my philosophy."
James Holbert, the Phantoms' running backs coach, emphasizes that you can't have a tradition at tailback without some help.
"It starts with the offensive line, and (assistants) Greg Narvid and Greg Day have done an outstanding job," he said. "The other thing is the fullback, because we run the I. When we had 2,000-yard rushers, we had guys like Chaz Robinson, Haroon Brown and Xavier Adibi."
This year, it's a rotation between Justin Lyles, Kenny Johnson and Atavius Matthews. And Matthews, a sophomore, will probably take over as the featured runner in 2011.
Until recently, Phoebus tailbacks played almost exclusively on offense. That changed with Goodwyn, who by the time he became a starter last season was an all-district defensive back. The same with Lee, who has a good chance of being all-district on both sides of the ball this season.
It's a delicate situation for the coaching staff.
"Our philosophy here is defense wins championships," Sexton said. "Your best 11 play defense, and our tailbacks have been among our best 11. We want them to be strong, so we're limiting the number of carries Tyree gets."
Lee is averaging 14 carries a game, fewer than four other starting tailbacks and even Gloucester quarterback Zack Tarpey. And his backup, DaShawn Arnold, is getting nine attempts a night.
Today's kids are too young to remember, but there was a time USC was known as Tailback U. Maybe Phoebus should be called Tailback High. That's been the philosophy since Dee came to Ireland Street 25 years ago. And that's the way it is now.
"I have nothing against the spread, and I wish I knew more about it," Sexton said. "But our bread and butter is power football and having a good tailback who can pound it in there. Kids growing up, if they're a good tailback in rec league, they say, 'I want to be a tailback at Phoebus.'"
PHOEBUS' 1,000-YARD STREAK
2010: Tyree Lee — 1,013 (through 7 games)
2009: Colby Goodwyn — 1,869
2008: Shawne Alston — 2,278
2007: Shawne Alston — 1,684
2006: Dennis Mathis — 2,148
2005: Dennis Mathis — 1,096
2004: Elan Lewis — 2,311
2003: Elan Lewis — 2,192
2002: Elan Lewis — 1,859
2001: Travis McCright — 2,140
2000: Travis McCright — 1,126