As a sportswriter, once you've been in this business a while, you tend to lose your rooting interests. You just hope for good games, great storylines and later deadlines.
But circumstances sometimes have a way of touching the heart. It did for me Friday night. While standing on the sideline at Tampa Plant High School's stadium, I found myself rooting for Eric Jackson.
Apopka's under-recruited, somewhat undersized and completely under-noticed defensive lineman snagged an errant pass and headed toward the goal line with the interception in hand.
He had 30 yards in front of him, but not much else as several Plant players flailed at his feet. It would have been unprofessional for me to openly break out in a full fan frenzy, but, in my head, I willed Jackson to the end zone. The play seemed like it was in slow motion the entire time as he powered his way down the field.
It was a crowning moment for Jackson and the rest of his defensive-line mates. For once, the spotlight shined bright on one of the guys who has made the going so tough on Apopka opponents during the past two seasons — and especially the past three games.
They're the Darters' dogs and they're hunting. They are Jackson, Robert Greathouse, Anthony Ellis, Shardel Blackshear and Isaiah Buehler until he was replaced recently by Johnny Robinson after tearing his ACL three weeks ago. These are the guys who put their hands in the dirt along the Apopka defensive front. They're the grunts of this 13-1 football team.
With the exception of an occasional sack or jarring hit, these unheralded Darters usually trudge along unnoticed as the so-called skill players bask in all the glory.
That's why Jackson's pick-six was so special. It even brought a smile to the usually stoic-in-game-mode face of Ellis.
Jackson and Ellis are two of the best senior defensive linemen in the state. But no one seems to know it. College recruiters certainly don't. Ellis is a 6-foot, 245-pound menace, whether on the defensive line or on special teams. He's fast, strong and has brought down many an opponent with his trademark move: He'll grab opposing ball carriers and body slam them to the turf, then offer a hand to help them back up … sometimes. Jackson, at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, has not only the height but a reach that often surprises ballcarriers who think they've broken free.
They might be small by defensive lineman standards, but at Apopka, it's not the size of the Darter, but the strength of his will. These guys bust their tails and get after opposing offenses with unrelenting drive. They don't take plays off.
"They pressure the passer, defend the run. … There are five good dudes in there, six now that Johnny is in there," Head Coach Rick Darlington said. "All seniors [except Robinson,] and we're going to miss them."
The fifth one to whom Darlington refers is Shardel Blackshear, the little guy who has no business playing defensive line. He's 5-foot-9, 194 pounds of hustle and determination, in true Apopka form, overcoming odds every week.
I kidded Shardel on Friday night about how he is like a walking MASH unit. I've seen him at different times this season in casts and walking boots or with a heavily-taped this or that. But he's out there. Every game. He hasn't missed.
Friday night, sporting a small cast on one wrist, he got popped in the shoulder and had to leave the game briefly for quick repairs. A sideline tape-job had him right back in the game.
"Gotta be in the game," he said.
They're tough, they work hard and they obviously get results. Apopka is 26-3 over the past two seasons, and the defensive line has played no small part. This season they have allowed opponents 18 points per game. When your offense averages 50-plus, that's more than efficient.
But for some reason, they're still not being heavily recruited by major colleges. Ellis, who is ranked No. 15 in the Sentinel's 2014 Central Florida Super60, and Jackson, who is ranked No. 19, both have just a few college offers to small FBS schools like Charlotte and FIU.
Buehler, who is out for the rest of the season since tearing his ACL in the second playoff game against Winter Park, has gotten the most attention and FIU has offered. He's ranked No. 14 in the Super60.
Greathouse would be in the elite bunch, as well, but early injuries in his career have limited his movement. Not enough, however, to limit his success for Apopka.
The lack of individual attention, however, is OK by them. They aren't worried about that stuff. They just want another ring, which they could claim with one more victory Saturday night at the Citrus Bowl against Homestead South Dade.
"You gotta stay humble," Ellis said recently. "Stay humble and stay hungry."
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, Instagram at os_recruiting and on Pinterest at Orlando Recruiting.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun