When River Hill's Austin Altman was at a football camp during his sophomore year, someone pointed out that — with his droopy eyes and easy smile — he resembled future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. The youngster didn't get upset. Instead, he went out and did everything he could to make the nickname "Manning" stick.
"I like that comparison, I like being called Manning," said Altman, who this year, as a senior, led River Hill to a 14-0 season and a second straight state championship.
Altman, who also set numerous school passing records this season, finishing with 116 completions for 2,397 yards and 27 touchdowns, can also now be called something else: the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier offensive Player of the Year.
"A lot of the records are team records. But in my quarterback notebook I kept a goal sheet, and one of the goals I wrote down was offensive Player of the Year, so that feels pretty good," said Altman, who threw touchdown passes to five different receivers and also rushed for six touchdowns.
Just a few years ago, that goal would have seemed ridiculous.
Playing soccer through most of his youth, Altman began to tire of that sport as he entered high school. So, he decided to switch over to football in eighth grade. That year on his rec team, he said, he played defensive end and tight end as the last player off the bench.
Then, as a freshman at River Hill, he was the seventh quarterback on JV.
To be fair, that group did include Raamah Vaughn — the quarterback of last year's state champion team — and Mark Darden, who transferred to Glenelg and became their starting quarterback, among others.
"That was a good group of kids. But (Altman) got a little bit taller and really developed his skills and worked on his arm strength," coach Brian Van Deusen said. "We saw some potential."
Van Deusen, an Atholton graduate who set numerous passing records himself at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel), noticed all the little things that Altman was doing to improve himself as a quarterback.
"His accuracy was getting better, his precision," Van Deusen said. "We worked on his decision-making."
By his sophomore year, Altman had worked his way up to second-string on the JV.
"That's when I knew I loved football," said Altman, who is still weighing his school options, but definitely wants to play collegiately.
From there, he started training at the Quarterback Factory, lifting weights every day and participating in 7-on-7 passing tournaments with his teammates during the offseason.
His persistence paid off and, as a junior, Altman got the starting nod on varsity.
The only problem was, River Hill — which had only lost three games in the four seasons prior — lost two of its first four games with him at stating quarterback.
"Austin didn't get a chance to do a whole lot in those games," Van Deusen said. "But that was a learning experience."
And Altman didn't wilt under the adversity, instead using the losses for motivation.
"That reflected badly on me," he said. "That's when I realized that it wasn't all physical, that it was mental, too. And that's when I started working on learning the game."
After a leg injury to Altman, Vaughn took over at quarterback and led a run-based offense to 10 straight victories and the program's third state championship. Altman celebrated the championship while standing on the sideline writing down plays on a clipboard.