CLEARWATER — Jake Shade led his team to the playoffs last season.
He won eight games, completed 64 percent of his passes and threw one interception in 113 pass attempts.
Then they took his job away.
“Disappointed? Yes,” he said.
Naturally, he wondered what he had done wrong, how he might make it right, how his father might react. But mostly he wondered the only thing a kid who had played quarterback since he was 7 and dreamed of one day lining up under center in college or the NFL could.
What am I going to do now?
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Clearwater Central Catholic is 11-1 this season, winners of 11 straight and hosting a state semifinal for the very first time Friday, against No. 1 University.
On a team without a real superstar, the Marauders have thrived thanks to a group of hard-nosed overachievers making sacrifices and playing mistake-free football.
Guys like Domenic James, a wide receiver his whole life, now a fullback. Or Ethan Thompson, a safety turned linebacker.
And Shade, who saw one dream die and went out and found another.
“Jake is one of the main reasons we’ve been as successful as we have been,” CCC coach John Davis said. “In today’s world, everything is about ‘me.’ You have parents pushing their kids, everyone thinks everyone is Division I — it’s all about scholarships. It’s hard to get guys to buy into the team concept. Not Jake Shade.”
Oh sure, it hurt, hearing the complaints last season that he was the weak link, that “the passing game is a joke,” as he read somewhere.
Or running during track practice and seeing the other quarterbacks working off in the distance. Or in the spring, when Blake Gomez and Jeff Smith were getting all the snaps.
He could feel it slipping away.
“I think Jake still thought he had a chance,” said his good friend James, “but he really didn’t.”
Shade, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior, moved to safety, where the season’s previous starters had graduated.
It was the first time he had ever played defense, and he immediately wondered how he would cover bigger and faster guys like East Lake’s George Campbell and Artavis Scott, or Tampa Catholic’s Zach Benjamin, or any of the other potential D-I receivers on CCC’s schedule.
And the quarterbacks, “would they pick me apart?”
In the spring game, though, Shade made a few plays. In the season opener against East Lake, he wasn’t burned.
As the season wore on, he didn’t just play, he performed. He made an impact.
Shade came to the realization that he was a pretty good safety, and he was right for trusting his coach, who promised to find a place for him.
Now, Shade says, he thanks Gomez, the junior quarterback who took his job away in the last year of his high school career, every chance he gets.
“I don’t want to say it’s been amazing, because that’s too vague …but it really has been,” Shade said. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
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Shade, who never once moped or complained about losing his job even when it hurt, has also filled in at wide receiver and on special teams — and anywhere else he is needed, including one play at running back.
He has 55 tackles. He likes hitting people now.
“If you had told me when I was a kid that, ‘Jake Shade, one day you will be a safety and a wide receiver,’ I would have slapped you,” said Shade, chuckling.
Against Berkeley Prep in a must-win game to clinch a playoff berth, he recovered a fumble, had a sack and caught three passes for 43 yards. He made people miss on a long screen play, juking defenders and drawing cheers of delight from his teammates on the sideline.
Last week, he had his first interception, and he knocked down a few other Tampa Catholic passes as well.
“I didn’t think he was going to be this good,” James said.
After the win over the Crusaders last week, Davis embraced Shade at midfield, both near tears.
The coach thanked the player for coming to CCC, and for believing, and in so many words for being gracious and classy.
“He’s one of my favorites of all time,” Davis said.
As for Shade, he is looking forward to playing safety in college, somewhere.
Shade, and those like him, define high school football far more terrifically than the rare All-American.
He is a kid with just enough talent to start, who had to move where his coach needed him, had to learn things he had never been taught before, and did so with a smile because the team needed him.
He will not be recruited by a big-time college, he will not play on ESPN, and heck, he might end up having to play at a small Division III outpost in western Iowa or eastern Pennsylvania or worse.
Friday night is probably as good as it will ever get.
Which, as far as Shade is concerned, is pretty darned good.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.