I’ve covered a lot of sports in my career. Covered thousands of high school, college and professional athletes.
After awhile, you become numb to it. The passion and thrill involved in so many different events sometimes can fade into nothing but another deadline.
But ever once in awhile, something happens to bring that passion back.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of a player -- with the exception of my own son, Carter -- as I was while watching Orlando Jones High offensive tackle Joshua Bembery on Sunday at the National Underclassmen Combine at Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg.
The man they call “Bubba” arrived at the NUC and had a quick forecast, “ I’m going to win MVP today, you watch.”
When I first met Bubba a year ago, those words would have been laughable. It was at a different NUC event at Jones High. He was out of shape, overweight and out of his league compared to most of the other participants.
“I’ve come a long way,” Bembery said. “The first time you seen me, I was out of shape, not good.”
He was 6-foot-2, 319 pounds of floppy blubber and he could hardly catch his breath between reps. The workouts had him dragging.
He was slow on his drop step into pass blocking, all over the place on technique and sometimes even appeared lost. He also had an obvious lack of confidence.
“Then summer came and coach started working with me, helping me with my footwork, my technique and all kinds of other things,” Bembery said of working with Jones head coach Kenard Lang. “I had no self-esteem. At one point I was not starting and so I had to work my way up, back into the starting lineup. Last year I did pretty good … 31 pancakes last season.”
Flash forward to Sunday. He was pancaking opponents so quickly you’d have thought he was lead chef at I-Hop. He put some of them down, they’d get up, and he’d flop them on their back once more.
“From the moment I got here I knew I was going to win this thing,” Bembery said while clutching his medal for Offensive Line MVP at the NUC event.”
He still weighs about 320, but he’s taller – almost 6-4 – and his weight is more evenly placed. Yes, he could still stand to lose another 20 or 30 pounds, but maybe the best thing for Bembery is that his confidence is back.
“The light is coming on for him now.” Lang said. “He’s working real hard in the weight room.”
Lang has been instrumental in helping instill a mentality in the team’s linemen that has paid big dividends for players like Bembery and all-American Duaron Williams, who is ranked No. 7 in the Sentinel’s 2012 Central Florida Super60. Lang’s passion for playing on the line, where he played for 13 years in the NFL and was an-All-American defensive end for Miami in college, is very strong and it carries over.
“Coach Lang works with the line more than anybody. That’s his favorite position,” Bembery said. “He’s been there and did this, so you gotta listen to him, be disciplined and have a nice work ethic.”
He also listens to Williams.
“Duaron, he helps everybody. He’s like one of the top players in the nation, so you gotta listen to what he says. He did this and he won it so you have to listen to what he said,” Bembery said of Williams, who won the National NUC offensive lineman for the 2012 class last summer.
We saw a little bit of Williams in Bembery on Sunday. He had just put back-to-back defensive linemen on their backs and it brought out some vocal hooting and hollering from what used to be a laid-back Bembery.
“Like he always says, You have to come out here and be a ‘Big Dawg,’ “ Bembery said, “so that’s what it is, that’s our motto, being a ‘Big Dawg,’ every day.”
Bubba has another voice in his corner. Father, Sylvester Bembery, played at UCF and was in the Arena Football League for 13 years, three with the New England Steamrollers and 10 years with the Tampa Bay Storm.
"He's pretty good right now, but if he can lose 20-30 pounds, he can be awesome," said dad. "He just needs to stay focused and we gotta get those grades up. He's about a 2.4 right now, but if he continues to have the right focus, he should be OK."
Jones High will lose an abundance of talented skill position players to graduation this year, but for those coming back, the offensive line will provide a formidable wall. The Tigers’ return almost their entire starting offensive line from last season, with the exception of Brandon Lynch, who is no longer at the school.
Williams is the left tackle, Bubba holds down one guard spot and Antwan Jackson the other, while Elgin Rucker is the center and Theo Luzien is the right tackle.
“We lost a lot of players, but the O-line is tight. I think we can still reach our goal, and that’s to win a state championship," Bubba said. "That’s our goal every year and so I think we’re going to win a state championship this year.”
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at email@example.com.