Although his Hereford Rec football teams struggled in a league against rivals from adjoining Carroll County, Ben Cranston turned those losses into wins by manning the most critical and cerebral position — center — on the offensive line for five years as a youth league player.
"I played line because I was pretty big, too big to be a skill-position guy," Cranston said. "And I played center right away out of necessity. I liked the idea of having the ball on every play."
The Parkton resident's career only blossomed from there, first at Loyola Blakefield and then at Johns Hopkins University.
Cranston's skills have been honed to the point that last month he was named the NCAA Division III Rimington Award winner, given annually to the top center in the nation at all levels.
Standout snappers from Division I, II and III and NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) were all honored.
There are 199 Division III football programs, 51 more than any other division.
Cranston, who plans to attend law school in the fall, helped the Blue Jays (10-1) navigate an undefeated regular season and land a third consecutive playoff berth.
Their high-powered offense set school records for points (40.5) and yards per game (500.6) this season with more than half of that total (260.9 yards) running behind Cranston and massive fellow senior First-Team All-America, Armand Jenifer, a tackle.
After a stellar career at Loyola during which the Dons claimed back-to-back Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference titles under coach Brian Abbott, Cranston headed to Amherst College.
Once he discovered that the Massachusetts school was not the best fit for him, Cranston applied to Hopkins where tight end Brendan Hartman, a Cockeysville resident and former Loyola teammate, was playing for coach Jim Margraff.
"Coach Abbott sent some film of me to coach Margraff," Cranston said. "I still wanted to play at the D3 level and Brendan told me how he loved it at Hopkins."
This time, his college choice was spot-on.
"We knew he was a terrific player," Margraff said. "I know the Amherst coach very well, and he told me good things about Ben. He came in and learned our system very quickly and locked down a position right away."
Playing mostly guard as a sophomore, Cranston claimed the center position as a junior and never let it go.
"We ask our centers to make a lot of (blocking) calls," Margraff added. "Ben's an excellent drive blocker and an excellent pass blocker as well. He's a little undersized, but he makes up for that with his tenacity."
Cranston is living proof that size does not always matter for adroit linemen.
"I'm 6-foot on a good day, and closer to 260 (pounds)," he said, although he's listed at 6-foot, 270 on the roster. "Depending who played at right guard, I was usually the smallest guy on the line. That's why it was better for me on the interior line."
He still came up big when it came time for postseason awards. Besides the Rimington Trophy, Cranston was named a First-Team All-America by D3football.com.
He was still shocked when he heard about the Rimington Trophy, considering that no one from the Nebraska-based organization contacted Cranston or Margraff about the honor.
"One of my teammates called to congratulate me," Cranston said. "I said, 'for what?' He said, 'check out the website.' The fact that I didn't expect it, makes it even better."
It also made Abbott very proud.
"He gets the big picture," the coach said. "Ben is who you want your son to grow up to be. He always represented the team, program and school in the best possible manner."