This article appears in the October 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Want to know something funny? Not funny ha ha, mind you. More like funny oddball. Good Counsel senior Akeem Hebron wasn't much of a football player growing up.
There, we said it. It's wacky, yeah. But true. And not at all funny to those players and coaches trying to stop him this season.
"I wasn't one of the best," says Hebron, now a blue-chip outside linebacker who's rated the No. 29 recruit in the nation by SchoolSports.com. "In fact, I didn't even start. Kids I played with back then see me today and say, ‘What happened to you? You were never this good.' When I first came to high school, I didn't really think I'd get that good. It was only when I moved up to varsity that I could see I could do something in this game."
Things have changed 180 degrees for this Montgomery Village Sports Association youth football alum. More than 65 Division I college coaches came to visit Hebron this past May, and nearly 30 programs made full scholarship offers — including powerhouse programs like LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, Maryland, Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan — before Hebron eventually committed to Georgia.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Hebron would have had twice that many offers if he hadn't taken his coach's advice and firmly rebuffed those schools he never had any intention of attending.
In short, Hebron is one of the hottest commodities in the nation today.
"In all my years of coaching, I've never been around a situation like this," says Good Counsel head coach Bob Milloy, who's in his fifth year with the Falcons and 36th overall in coaching. "He was by far the most sought-after junior I've ever coached. He's got those things you can't coach — speed, instinct and work ethic."
Hebron, who recorded 95 tackles, 10 quarterback hurries, five sacks and one interception as a junior, is very good because of those three things. But he's great because his respect for the game has never wavered and he's never lost perspective about where he began.
"He's still a kid who if you say something negative to, he reacts like he's a kid right on the cusp," says Milloy, who entered this fall with a career record of 293-93-1 and has won a combined eight Class 4A Maryland state titles with two different programs. "He reacts like he's about to get put on the bench. Like I'm really going to bench an Akeem Hebron."
Stranger things have happened, but Milloy is quite correct — few personnel moves would be more foolish. You see, Hebron is a pursuit linebacker who possesses extraordinary gifts. He doesn't simply get to the ball. He gets to the ball with authority.
"You see a play developing and you say to yourself, ‘Uh oh, this guy is going to get outside,'" says Milloy, who led Good Counsel to an 11-1 record and a berth in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title game last year. "Then this blur enters your field of vision. He doesn't just tackle people, he accelerates through them. He closes so fast and then he explodes on people."
What enhances Hebron's I-used-to-stink-at-this-game charm is the fact that he's pretty ho-hum about the stuff he does on the field to this day.
"People keep saying I'm a good player and I'm always around the ball," he says. "But to me, that's what a linebacker is supposed to do. It's nothing special. I'm just playing my position."
Yeah, right. That's why a who's who of college football programs came calling. Because they can never resist a guy who just plays his position.
Naturally, Hebron's reversal in performance and ability since his youth football days has brought a corresponding change in expectations. He's supposed to have big games now.
Still, the pressure to deliver hasn't changed his approach.
"I don't see myself going out there and saying to myself, ‘If I don't do this, I haven't done enough,'" says Hebron. "I have my own expectations for myself, and they elevate every game. I'm going to play like the same player no matter what other people say."
It doesn't require a crystal ball to predict that even loftier expectations are on the horizon. Big-time college athletics. Big-time game days. The national scrutiny of major college football looms.
"When I get [to Georgia], I'll need to get used to the atmosphere and build relationships with everyone on the team," says Hebron, who started as a sophomore on a Good Counsel squad that went 8-2. "I'll have to work my hardest to get on the field."
Hebron is well-equipped to clear the hurdles in front of him. First off, he possesses mad self-motivation. And when his own drive falters, he's got his big sister, 27-year-old Carisma, all over his case.
"She kinda keeps me in line," says Hebron, who played JV football as a freshman at Watkins Mill before getting called up to varsity midway through the season to play special teams. "I can tell she cares a lot for me and knows what kind of impact I can have on football, so she pushes me hard to stay focused."
Then again, Carisma can probably think about scaling back to light duty awfully soon. It seems Hebron has drive and focus to spare at the moment.
"I love the game so much," he says. "The motivation to get better is huge. I work hard all the time to get where I need to be."
Scouts and recruiters can babble on about what's great about Akeem Hebron. His speed. His read-and-react capabilities. The concussive force of his hits. All vital stuff, for sure. But what's irresistible about Hebron is his mid-game calm. His clear-headed, all-business style in the eye of the storm.
For Hebron, the most important play on defense is the next play.
"You gotta stay calm at all times," says Hebron. "If I get too excited, it will affect my game. You have to get refocused right after any play because the next play is a whole different thing. If you get beat, just go pick yourself up on the next play."
Just like any former bench warmer would.