TAMPA — Perhaps James Harrell realized something we didn’t.
Maybe Jesuit’s coach knew Aaron Paulsen — “AP” to teammates — was ideally suited to withstand the cauldron of searing intensity, smack talk and safety blitzes that will be Dads Stadium on Friday night.
If you’re gonna toss a kid into the fire, you’ve got to know beforehand that he’s heat resistant. Perhaps that’s why Harrell, to the astonishment of many, has tabbed Paulsen as his starting quarterback for this ultra-hyped season opener at Plant.
“The kid is pretty athletic,” Harrell said.
Not to mention resilient. Harrell has to know that, right? Surely, someone told him about Paulsen’s days with the Dolphins of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. And about that fever, and frenetic overtime conclusion.
Go back a half-decade to a Saturday morning — a playoff Saturday morning — when Paulsen awoke with a 103-degree fever. As Dolphins equipment manager, Jay Paulsen had to be there, but he told the oldest of his two boys to stay home.
Aaron refused. “He actually didn’t even dress out. He didn’t do pregame calisthenics,” Jay recalled. “He pretty much said he wanted to try it.”
After a nip-and-tuck first half, Aaron told his coach he couldn’t go anymore. But when the backup promptly rolled his ankle, he re-entered. In the third overtime, Aaron threw a tying TD pass and — after an excessive -celebration penalty — passed for the winning two-point conversion.
“I think it would kill him watching from the sidelines,” Jay said.
This, Jesuit fans, is your new starter: a 5-foot-9 senior with brown bangs, decent speed (4.8 seconds in the 40), a respectable arm and moxie to burn. Two weeks ago, his world was flipped like a remodeled bungalow.
That’s when Harrell moved him from slot receiver and told him he was the Tigers’ quarterback, ahead of 6-foot-4 senior Tommy Eveld, who shined all summer in various 7-on-7 gigs.
“I sat them down and kind of told them what their skill sets were,” Harrell said. “And I told Tommy he has a strong arm and we like it, but (Aaron) gives us the best chance of winning based on what we’re doing right now.”
With that, Paulsen began bracing for his first start at QB in a meaningful contest since the TBYFL Super Bowl four years ago. In the hours leading to kickoff, he’ll blast his trademark pregame tune — Run This Town by Jay-Z — through his iPod. Then, the real noise will follow.
Friday's game, the first between the Himes Avenue rivals in 17 years, is a sellout.
“Scared? I’m a little bit of everything,” said Paulsen, who had 23 receptions and took some snaps in the Wildcat look last season.
“This is my second start as the Jesuit quarterback (including last week’s preseason game) and it’s Plant. I’m nervous but I think we have a good chance of winning. All we have to do is work. Work, work, work.”
The dynamic Paulsen provides was brandished on a weather-beaten night two Saturdays ago, at Jesuit’s final full scrimmage. He successfully slithered from trouble when the pocket collapsed and, on a broken play, rolled left and found Travis Johnson for a 48-yard completion.
He also had a 60-yard TD toss to Johnson. “I think (the switch from Eveld to Paulsen) shocked a lot of people, but he brings a whole different aspect to the game,” Tigers senior receiver Bryce Walker said.
“I remember we put him in as a backup to give our defense a look last year, and he carved up our starting defense.”
A Dads Stadium dissection, by contrast, will prove more challenging. Hence the reason Harrell insists he’ll need both his quarterbacks to win.
“Tommy has a different skill set,” Harrell said. “Tommy’s good, too, now.”
But it starts Friday with AP, who’s psyched, stoked and still a bit stunned.
The fever’s back.
“This (past) weekend I was introduced as Jesuit’s starting quarterback, I wasn’t introduced like I normally was,” Paulsen said. “It’s been different, I love it. I love being the starter here.”