This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Richard Taylor is the only head football coach Centennial has employed since opening its doors in 1990, and he knows an unselfish talent when he sees one. So it means something that of all the great qualities he sees in senior Terry Longbons, it's the running back's selflessness Taylor likes best.
An early-season game against Chaparral this fall is a perfect example — a Friday night when the Firebirds chose to put eight men in the box and stop the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Longbons at all costs. Chaparral did a credible job, holding the state's top back to a modest 102 yards and no touchdowns.
But despite being contained for most of the night, Longbons was still smiling ear to ear as the final seconds ticked off against Chaparral. That's because senior quarterback Joe Caskey exploited Centennial's Terry-fied opponent en route to three touchdown passes in a 21-14 win.
Lest we forget, the stakes are pretty high for Longbons this year. The returning first team All-State selection entered this season needing 2,504 yards to break the state's career rushing record of 5,878 yards, set in 2002 by Tolleson's Marcus Thomas, who is now at the University of Texas-El Paso. And though certainly attainable for a guy who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last year, a 102-yard performance only makes reaching that milestone even tougher this season.
"It really is special having him on the team," says Taylor, 55, now in his 15th season at the helm for the Coyotes, who were ranked No. 17 in the SchoolSports.com National Top 25 as of press time. "For most backs, 102 yards is a good night's work. But for him, the expectations are higher. Some backs of his stature would have been frustrated or upset or disappointed or angry, but not Terry. If people are going to sell out to stop the run, we're going to hurt them all year with the pass. And if that helps us win, Terry will be happy."
Indeed, Longbons doesn't exactly bask in the spotlight.
Ask him what his finest football asset is and he says, "The blockers in front of me." And his favorite school subject isn't exactly what you'd expect for an elite football recruit. The guy likes art.
"I like doing sketches, mostly with graphite," confesses Longbons, whose junior season performance (2,053 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns) was itself a work of art.
Even when prodded to revel in all the flattering things being written and said about him, he refuses to take the bait.
"I don't think about it, and I don't even listen to or read the hype," says Longbons, whose 3,375 career rushing yards entering this season were even more impressive considering he played on the freshman team his first year. "I just go out and play."
So what's this kid's story, anyway? He doesn't talk like a lot of other blue-chip players. Maybe that means he can't really run like one.
"He has a rare combination of speed and power that most high school kids his age don't have," says Taylor. "He runs a 4.4 in the 40 and bench presses 360 pounds, so he hits the hole fast and brings a load when he comes. His yards after first contact are amazing."
Talk to Longbons long enough and he starts to offer clues that he's made of steel rather than straw.
"Our job is to get into the end zone," says Longbons when asked to pinpoint the root of his killer instinct. "I do whatever I can to get there, whether that means running past people or over them. It's them or me."
And it seems he truly prides himself on those yards after first contact.
"One thing coach says that's really stuck with me is to keep those legs pumping," he says. "No one ever really stops you from running. You stop."
Looming just as large as his quest for the state rushing record is his impending college career. Longbons settled on Arizona this past summer and reiterated his commitment to the Wildcats in September, but he also mentioned the names of suitors like Arizona State, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
Regardless, he knows that beginning next fall, he won't be the guy everybody's talking about again for a while.
"The size and skill of college players is intimidating," says Longbons, 18, who was the only junior on The Arizona Republic's 2003 Super All-State Team. "I need to learn some more moves and become more agile. But I'll take it all in stride. I'm sure you get used to it. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm excited about it."
For his part, coach Taylor thinks it's a third trait — in addition to power and speed — that will best serve Longbons in his quest to contribute sooner rather than later at the next level.
"He's coachable," says Taylor, who guided Centennial to a 10-2 record and the second round of the Class 4A playoffs last season, the deepest the Coyotes have ever advanced in the postseason. "After four years — I coach all the running backs in the program — he's heard everything I've had to say, but he still listens and still tries to do everything you ask. He's never once given me a look like, ‘I'm not going to do that.' He's a coach's dream."
Somewhere in his subconscious, Terry Longbons is surely hoping his pursuit of the state rushing record ends happily. In the meantime, it's the down-to-earth Longbons we'll have to be content with. The version for whom the finish line to a special season will only be meaningful if it's the conclusion of one big victory lap.
"We're trying to get that state championship," says Longbons. "So I'll keep doing what I've been doing and acting the way I've been acting and keep working hard. I just think about the team and what I have to do to keep us all on top."