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It would be hard to find two more deserving candidates for Student-Athlete of the Year than Dakari Carter and Lauren Jones -- and their on-the-field accomplishments are the last thing on my mind when I say that.
On the field, it's pretty clear how the Garfield and Streetsboro seniors earned the tag, of course.
In addition to Carter being a three-time state champion in the 100-meter dash, he's one of the most gifted wide receivers I've ever seen play at the high-school level. His football coach, John Arlesic, often pointed out to me that Carter wasn't just fast, he was a brilliant wideout with dazzling hands, and he was right. Sure, blazing speed, being able to run 100 meters in under 11 seconds, translates well on the football field, but Carter is so much more than pure speed. His hands and vertical leap are unbelievable. There are catches he made against Crestwood that still will not leave my head.
His state championships, too, deserve special mention. It's not just that he won three straight state championships from 2014 to 2016 -- he won at least two of them at far less than 100 percent. He dealt with hamstring issues every single year at state -- and even tore his ACL his junior year. He very well might have won a fourth state championship Saturday if not for a hamstring that was finally too weak to run on. His regional time of 10.67 certainly boded well for what he might have been able to accomplish at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium had he been healthy.
Lauren Jones, meanwhile, has been brilliant at pretty much every sport she has ever played. She's going to Oklahoma for track and field, where she captured her third straight state discus title Friday while also finishing third in the shot put Saturday. Even after failing to win the regional championship in the discus for the first time this year, she didn't get rattled.
"She was laughing the whole week. It was not like you'd expect. Some kids take that stuff hard. She was laughing about it," Garfield throws coach Jim Pfleger said. "We said all week, we don't hang up regional titles, we hang up state titles."
That said, Jones could excel at any sport she wanted. As the Garfield girls basketball team entered this year's postseason, we saw just how good Jones was -- her brilliant pull-up jumpers proving to be one of the G-Men's most unstoppable weapons. After one game, teammate Grayson Rose, herself a Northern Kentucky basketball commit, was left struggling for words, simply saying, "She's a freak." That vertical did indeed challenge belief at times. Tack on the fact that Jones was also legendary as a softball pitcher, among her many other sports.
Both Carter and Jones have athleticism that defies description. The smoothness with which Carter churned up the track and Jones spun and flung the discus is impossible to replicate, and at times, harder to describe.
But again so much of what makes Carter and Jones special is who they are beyond sports.
Jones is one of those special kinds of people whose gregarious, warm personality seemed to rally an entire county behind her. How could anyone not love an athlete who smiled so brightly and seemed to enjoy the biggest stages so much? She was friendly to seemingly everyone, at times treating the fiercest of competitions like a backyard barbecue as she said hello to one well-wisher after another.
"As the athletic director and a coach, that's what you want to model all your kids after," Pfleger told the Record-Courier last Friday. "She's well-rounded, does a little bit of everything, excels at everything, and she's always smiling, always fun to be around. We're going to miss her."
And as kind as she seemed from a distance, she was better in person. One of the warmest, most loquacious athletes I have ever had the pleasure of profiling and covering, Jones was truly a personality to behold. Quick to laugh, with an easygoing personality that made her so easy to talk to, minutes would fly by talking to her after games.
Carter, I didn't get to know quite as well, because I didn't cover nearly as many of his games and meets, but I learned everything I needed to know about him Friday, after that hamstring kept him from advancing to the 100-meter dash finals. We didn't talk at the track that day, but coach Tom Fesemyer said I could grab him on the phone. To tell the truth, I dreaded that phone call, because I knew how I would feel had an injury robbed me of my chance at glory, and I couldn't imagine he would want to talk much -- and understandably so.
But Carter was a delight and a joy. Everyone who saw him run Friday felt bad, watching that hamstring cost him a chance at history, a shot to become only the third sprinter in Ohio history to ever win four 100 state titles, but there was no self-pity in his voice, no anger. "Isn't it beautiful?" Carter asked, talking about that beautiful sunny day as birds chirped outside his hotel window. He talked excitedly about cheering on his teammates the next day. There was no regret, only gratefulness for what he had been able to achieve, and excitement at what his teammates might achieve next. He showed more maturity after losing a dream he had worked toward all year than I show when my computer starts operating slowly. It was one of the most memorable interviews of my life.
Then again, that's just Carter being Carter. He has handled pressure his entire high-school career. After winning the state title as a freshman, endless excitement and speculation enveloped his next three years. At one point, as a sophomore, it was too much and he considered calling it quits, but as a senior, he handled the harshest of moments with picture-perfect maturity, walking out of the stadium to cool off, taking some "me time" and returning as graceful as ever.
"The amount of pressure was very, very, very intense," Fesemyer said. "The amount of maturity, I don't think he could've handled that four years ago, but here is an athlete that has been through so much over the course of his career, and I think you saw a very appropriate response."
And all the praise and fame, that too he handled with perfect modesty. At this year's district meet, Fesemyer recalled Carter talking with a fellow competitor. After someone told her it was Dakari Carter, the three-time state champion, she had been talking with, she was shocked. For all the time they had spoken, he had never mentioned a thing about all of his gold medals.
"He's a down-to-earth person, he's a down-to-earth guy. That story kind of captured that," Fesemyer said. "He has a God-given talent, he really does. Sometimes, as a high-schooler, you can get caught up in antics and sideshows. I think he did a nice job of avoiding that."
As I look at these Athletes of the Year, then, I see two individuals who are true role models, not only for the kids out there, but for us adults as well. The way Carter handled a tough break, the way Jones brought a smile to the field every day, the way both remained so humble while being so great, there's a lot we can learn from them. Truly, we're all greater for having been around their greatness.
I know I'm a better person for having watched them, for having been blessed with the opportunity to cover them. They're the kind of kids I don't want to let go -- but I can't wait to see what they do next, and I know I'll be rooting for them for the rest of their lives. And when sports are done, maybe after college, maybe after the NFL for Carter and the Olympics for Jones, they're the kind of kids who I know, if they handle life the same way they handled their high school careers, they'll take this world by storm.
Indeed, my advice to them is simple -- stay the same. The humility, the passion, the love of the game -- all I can wish for either, and for all of the kids I cover, is to maintain that spirit into whatever they do next, for the rest of their lives.
Yes, I'm a better man for having watched these two fine athletes. They're an inspiration for what we all can be. And we're a better community, a better county, because of them.