Ryan Kearney woke up around 4 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 17 with the news he feared most. His father Pat passed away peacefully at their home after a four-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 56.
“Trying to wrap your head around that is hard,” the Howard senior linebacker said, “but I tried to spend as much time with him as I could. I think I got like two hours of sleep that night.”
Amidst mourning his father, Kearney had a decision to make and little time to consider it: Would he suit up and take the field that night in the 4A North regional championship game at Paint Branch, the biggest game of the year, just 17 hours after his father’s death?
He spoke with his family, coaches and teammates before ultimately deciding to consider only one thing in making his decision: What would my dad want me to do?
“He would have chemotherapy and on a Friday night he’d be out there watching me, so I knew I had to play no matter what,” Kearney said. “I tried to get myself prepared for that and block out everything and the rest of the day try to get myself right. As soon as I got to the school with my teammates I knew I would be fine.”
Howard coach Ross Hannon remembers waking up at 5:30 a.m. to the text message from Ryan’s mother Ann with the news of Pat’s death. It was devastating for everyone involved with the Howard football program, which Hannon considers family. And after meeting with Kearney before the 15-mile trip south, he wasn’t sure how Kearney or his team would respond.
“You hope and you know your team, and I felt like our seniors were going to circle the wagons and have Ryan’s back and get him motivated,” Hannon said.
Howard Athletic and Activities Manager Michael Duffy remembers watching Kearney on the sideline before the game. He and Kearney’s teammates and coaches were constantly checking in with him. All everyone saw was laser focus.
“Quite honestly, he didn’t look like he was handling anything any different than he had any other day, which to me spoke to who he is as a person and who he is as a player,” Duffy said. “He was keeping his focus on the task at hand.”
What transpired on the field was like something out of a movie, a script too perfect to write. With the game tied, 14-14, in the middle of the third quarter, the Lions had lost the momentum. Paint Branch had overcome a 14-0 deficit and was in Howard territory driving to take the lead.
Paint Branch quarterback Norman Douglas took the shotgun snap, rolled to his right and delivered a pass to running back Ali Sheriff in the flat. Kearney, like he had done all season, read the play perfectly. At full speed he delivered a crushing blow to Sheriff, forcing a fumble that the Lions recovered.
“We needed a play to be made and there are some plays out there where you see what’s going to happen before,” said Kearney, this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Defensive Player of the Year. “You see the running back running across and I just know I’ve got to make that play, and I did.”
The play single-handedly changed the game. Howard running back Robert Agbai rumbled into the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown run four plays later to give the Lions the lead for good, and they went on to win the game, 33-20, to capture their fourth straight regional title.
“To be 17 years old and to handle it the way he did, there’s no doubt the big hit he had on their crossing route, jarring the ball loose in a tie game in the middle of the third quarter, we needed that,” Hannon said. “We’re playing a great team and the No. 1 seed at their place, and Ryan stepped up and made the play and got his teammates and got the crowd back into the game. It was just a magical moment.”
Kearney could sense that something about that night was different. The game had always come easy to him because of his intense preparation on and off the field, all the hours spent in the weight room in the offseason or watching film during the week between games. But something else contributed to his unforgettable performance.
“My dad was with me that night,” he said. “That was the most special game I ever played in. Definitely.”
That Kearney made the game-changing play in that game isn’t a surprise to those who know him. Hannon calls him the best linebacker he’s ever coached. Former Howard coach Bruce Strunk last year called Kearney “the perfect linebacker for the era of the spread offense.”
“He has the combination of size, high football IQ, speed and the ability to play in space,” Strunk added. “Ryan might be the fastest linebacker I have coached in 28 years.”
This year, Kearney finished with 50 tackles, including 33 solos, three tackles for loss, an interception, one well-known forced fumble and a fumble recovery. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, especially when you consider he spent the second half of most games on the sideline because the game was out of reach. The Lions allowed less than five points per game during the regular season.
“I didn’t have the eye-popping stats, but obviously it was a successful season,” Kearney said. “I see myself as the leader of one of the best defenses in the state and I feel like whenever my team needed to make a play I was the one to try to make it.”
Over his four years, the Lions went 48-5 overall and 38-1 in county play. They went 29-1 at home and won county and regional titles each year. Losses to Henry A. Wise High School, which has ended Howard’s season three straight years en route to winning three straight state titles and 42 consecutive games — the third-longest streak in state history — are the only dampers on what Kearney considers the most memorable time of his high school career.
“Howard football is everything,” he said. “Coming in as a freshman I thought I wouldn’t make it. Just being able to grow — I mean some of my best friends have come through playing this game. It’s been my life the past four years. I’m sad to go. It means so much to me.”
Kearney hopes his playing days aren’t over yet. He is considering a number of collegiate football opportunities, including several Division-I schools.
“Everything Ryan has done from the classroom to the weight room to the practice field and the way he plays the game in such a special way,” he said. “It’s such a special and unique thing as a coach to be a part of it. I’ve enjoyed being along the ride with him and his development as a young man unfolding right in front of me.”
Also named to the first team:
Abeku Abercrombie, Marriotts Ridge, senior.
Abercrombie was a two-year starter for one of the stingiest defenses in the county. The Mustangs were the only county team to allow fewer than 30 points in every game this fall.
“Every day he brought a great attitude and a desire to the practice and game field,” Marriotts Ridge coach Marcus Lewis said. “His legacy will be one of a well-rounded individual that was successful both academically and athletically while at Marriotts Ridge.”
Johnson was a menace on the defensive line this season for the Gladiators. He had 41 tackles, 15 tackles loss and a county-best eight sacks to lead Glenelg to a second-straight regional championship.
“He’s a high-motor player that gave maximum effort on every play,” coach Butch Schaffer said. “He was a force to deal with up front and he was the guy up front that got the defense moving. Speed, quickness and tenacity were his trademarks. He’s one of the best defensive linemen we have had since I have been at Glenelg.”
A two-year varsity starter, Majors was dominant in stopping the run game and proved as much in a season-opening victory against Glenelg. He was named the Elgard Trophy game “MVP” after holding Gladiators’ running back Wande Owens to 39 yards rushing on 17 carries in the 34-0 win.
“He’s always smiling and he made practice fun for everyone,” said Lions coach Ross Hannon. “Demetrius has great feet for a 300-pound tackle, and he’s extremely quick and athletic.”
Majors finished the season with 61 tackles, the most on the team.
Spencer Willis, Long Reach, senior.
Willis, the son of Lightning head coach Jamie Willis, was the emotional leader for the Lightning this season and was one of a few players on the team to play on both sides of the ball. A four-year varsity player and three-year starter, the statistics don’t describe his impact on the field, as he finished with 26 tackles and one for loss while being consistently double-teamed.
“He plays with great effort and a high motor,” said Jamie Willis. “His legacy is one that helped turn around Long Reach football the past couple of seasons.”
Abraham did a little bit of everything this season for the Hawks, finishing with 54 solo tackles and 10 for loss while playing both offense and defense. The three-year varsity starter had one of his best games against Glenelg in the regular season. He sang the national anthem before the game and then kicked off the contest with an 80-yard touchdown run in an eventual 20-0 win.
“Austin has great football instincts and knowledge. He was like having a coach on the field. He made most of our defensive calls during the game,” said River Hill coach Brian Van Desusen. “He runs to the ball and is an excellent tackler.”
Jeremy Huffman, Long Reach, junior.
Huffman wasn’t the biggest linebacker in the county but patrolled the middle of the field well for the Lightning. The two-year varsity starter had 43 solo tackles and assisted on 49 more, had two sacks, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries this season. He had seven tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in a 27-6 win against Marriotts Ridge.
“Jeremy as a middle linebacker is the coach on the field for our defense,” Long Reach coach Jamie Willis said. “He has a very high football IQ and gets his teammates into the best call possible to succeed. Jeremy is always around the ball.”
Kamara was a returning starter for the Scorpions at inside linebacker and excelled this fall as a mainly one-way player on defense. He is undersized at 5-foot-6, 190 pounds but made up for it with his instincts and discipline. He had two games with 15 or more tackles and finished with 108 tackles and three sacks, and he had a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 38-34 loss to River Hill.
“He was the heart and soul of our defense,” Oakland Mills coach Tom Browne said. “... Mulbah was a true throwback player: a tough kid who liked to mix it up and was a great leader for our defense. He would do whatever you asked him to do and more often than not, he excelled at the task.”
Ben Stephanos, Howard, junior.
A true team player, according to coach Ross Hannon, Stephanos had the “grit and determination” to help lead one of the league’s best defenses. The two-year varsity starter finished the season with 54 tackles and two interceptions.
“He has the ‘do your job’ mentality,” Hannon said. “He always lined up correctly and knew everyone else’s alignment/assignments. He has great instincts and a quick first step to defeat blocks. ... He had the leadership and commitment to being the best he can be. He’s a weight room and conditioning fanatic.”
Perhaps no county player has a stronger resume as a freshman and sophomore than Brade. The 6-foot, 185-pound safety is already a two-year varsity starter and was a second-team All-County selection as a freshman. He finished this year with 108 tackles and three interceptions — two of which came in a 20-0 win over Glenelg — and is already garnering interest from several FBS schools.
“Beau is one of the best players in the county as a sophomore,” said Hawks coach Brian Van Desusen. “He is a great tackler and covers a lot of ground from the safety position. He has great football instincts and is a big hitter. He will also be a big part of our plans on offense next season.”
Saleem Jackson, Wilde Lake, senior.
Jackson was one of the most versatile players in the county this fall. He has the ability to play safety, corner and inside and outside linebacker and led the Wildecats with seven sacks this year after leading the team in interceptions as a junior. He also had 81 tackles and on offense he ran for 419 yards and six touchdowns.
“Saleem has been a critical player in our defense for the past two seasons. He is an impact defender no matter where he lines up at the snap of the ball,” said Wilde Lake coach Michael Harrison. “Saleem is a leader and a competitor. He is coachable and gives 100 percent on each and every play.”
Jake Peretti, Atholton, senior.
Peretti arguably had the best individual performance of any county player this season with his five interceptions in a 17-14 win over Oakland Mills in Week 3 to set a new state record. He finished the year with 96 tackles and a county-best seven interceptions for one of the league’s best defenses.
“Our team fed off of Jake’s big play ability and humor. He was the catalyst to our stingy defense,” said Raiders coach Justin Carey. “Jake brings a calm and collected demeanor that allowed him to play relaxed and to see the entire field from the secondary. Poise is a characteristic that describes Jake as he can adjust to adverse situations and makes plays.”
Sambo was a threat to score no matter where he lined up on the field. He led the Gators in rushing this fall with 729 yards and six touchdowns on 97 carries and was one of the best returners on special teams. On defense, the three-year varsity starter brought “confidence and calm,” coach Bryan Cole said.
“Ebissa was a role model for our football team on and off the field,” he said. “Ebissa has always taken his academics very seriously and has been the definition of a student athlete here at Reservoir.”
Sambo will play at the Naval Academy starting next fall.
Cooper McGeehan, River Hill, senior.
McGeehan is a three-time first-team All-County selection and four-year varsity starter. He averaged 40 yards per punt and made 33 of his 35 extra-point attempts as the Hawks kicker. He also made six of his eight field goals and made 11 total in his career.
“Cooper has been the leader and captain of our special teams for the last four years,” River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen said. “He is a hard worker and has improved his kicking each season.”
McGeehan was also critical for the Hawks defense, as he finished the year with 38 tackles, three and a half sacks and a pair of interceptions as an outside linebacker.
Second Team All-County Defense:
John Abdou, Howard, senior, defensive line
Lance Mercy, River Hill, senior, defensive line
Jake Wrisk, Howard, junior, defensive line
Michael Zeleznik, Long Reach, senior, defensive line