FORT LAUDERDALE – It happened during the fourth quarter against Bradenton Manatee in the state playoffs. It was an injury that could have ended the season for many, but not for Andrew Datko.
This 6-6, 275-pounder, who had been told by many that the offensive line play would be down at this 5A powerhouse when Sam Young, Dan Wenger and Marcus Gilbert all left to compete at Notre Dame and Florida respectively, took it personally. It was something that stuck with this gifted lineman all season.
"I remembered that I was hit and there was a lot of pain," said Datko. "But this game was far too important. I put the pain and knowing that I would be somewhat limited behind and played on."
The Raiders continued to play, and it was later found that it was a dislocated shoulder. With the rematch of the rematch with Lakeland looming and the opportunity to lock horns with John Brown and the rest of the defending national champions, Datko played on.
"Adrenalin and the fact that it was a 5A state championship game and I blocked it all out," Datko recalled. "While we lost some great players the year before, we didn't lose everyone. Great programs like St. Thomas find ways to reload and continue a proud tradition."
In that state title game that is still too painful for Raider fans who witnessed one of the greatest comebacks ever, Datko, bruised and battered from his injury, limited in all the things that he was good at doing, still went out there and had one of his better games.
That win, and of course his performance, out this youngster on the map. Recruiting services and colleges began calling, requesting film and interviews. At a school where this has become commonplace, this was all new to Datko and his family.
"Colleges began to call, recruiting services wanted to know what schools I liked – frankly this was somewhat overwhelming," Datko pointed out. "Before I went to this school, I never played the sport. Oh, well, maybe out on the street, but I was too big and my interest was with basketball."
Coming up through the ranks at St. Thomas, he played freshman ball as a ninth grader, competed at the junior varsity level in the 10th grade, and then last year, fresh off the complete house-cleaning up front for the Raiders, he was one of the top players on the line.
The very things that had him watching Young's every move during his senior year are those qualities that colleges are watching him for. Quickness, athletic ability and a feel for the sport of football.
"Until I saw Sam, I thought that you had to be 340 or 350 to be a great lineman," Datko said. "He showed me that you can be athletic, have size and speed, and be agile at the same time."
While this past summer has watched him attend nearly every college in the state, Datko's decision is probably made up as he begins summer practice "100 percent healthy" and ready to go.
Two schools that are looking for game changers to erase 7-6 records, and of course, two programs who simply cannot afford to have a repeat performance of 2006 – in any shape or form!
The decision between Miami – at least for Datko – will not come down to a gaudy weightroom, stadium or how many people show up for a pep rally on a Friday night. It will come after looking what school and football program are best for him – and of course – his family.
"Two great schools with a lot to offer," he said. "Great fans, tremendous players on the team. It's a decision that will come probably in the fall."
One of the things that was asked of Datko to talk about the coaches who have made the most impact on his playing career, and the two position coaches who figure to impact his life a great deal. He also spoke about FSU's Rick Trickett and Miami's Jeff Stoutland.
DATKO ON HEAD COACH GEORGE
"Organized! "He always has everything taken care of by the time the game kicks off. Little details that many never think about."
DATKO ON LINE COACH JAY CONNOLLY: "The first two years, I played on the defensive side of the ball, but when he saw me before the start of my junior year, he told me that I would be with him. A great coach who knows how to teach, and most of all, treat people. To me, that is very important."
With the Seminoles and Hurricanes both having first-year offensive line coaches, Datko has found himself doing a bit of research to see all about the coaches who came from West Virginia and Michigan State respectively.
DATKO ON RICK TRICKETT: "I had the chance to watch him coach during a camp they had while I was there. I said to myself, this man knows exactly what he's doing. I was impressed. Very impressed."
DATKO ON JEFF STOUTLAND: "Just by sitting down and talking with him, you can see that he has done this for a long time, and has taught some impressive linemen. He's a real good coach."
BLUSTEIN ON ANDREW DATKO: "Like most athletic linemen, you can tell from the first time you watch them. Quick first step and a body that will continue to put on more muscle. Could be a big time player."
Photo courtesy of Charles Fishbein of MSL Sports