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TAMPA — It just might have been the best backfield ever assembled in Hillsborough County. But the youth league players never lived up to their dreams of winning state high school football titles as part of the same team. ¶ Of course, they were only 10 and 11, but James Wilder Jr., Quentin Williams and Matt Jones knew where they wanted their football careers to take them — and it was together. ¶ The three were teammates on the Ybor City Boys & Girls Club Eagles, which won three league championships, intertwined by the wishbone offense they ran. ¶ Before all the scholarship offers, the Nike swooshes on their uniforms and national television exposure, they practiced on a dusty field beside the now-closed Boys & Girls club and played their games in front of family and friends at Rowlett Park.
“It was all about playing on Saturdays,” said Williams, now a senior quarterback at Jefferson. “I remember it. You’d get breakfast at the club, getting on the bus. You’d get some reading done and get ready to play ball.”
Years later, they’ve each created their own identities as three of the top high school players in the state, far removed from the plain royal blue jerseys they wore back in the day.
And this weekend, each can lead his team — Plant, Jefferson and Armwood — to a high school state championship at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
“A lot of people would be surprised to see what they do now,” said their youth league coach, Darrell Palmer, now the secondary coach at Armwood. “Me? I’m not surprised, not at all. I know the drive they had back then.”
Plant’s Wilder has the Panthers on the verge of a third straight state title. Arguably the most dominant player the Tampa Bay area has seen in years, the running back/defensive end is the son of former Bucs running back James Wilder Sr. He was tabbed the No. 1 senior recruit in the nation earlier this year, he has committed to Florida State, and most would say he’s a good bet to play on Sundays.
Williams, meanwhile, has broken every state single-season and career passing record, passing the likes of Tim Tebow, Aaron Murray, Robert Marve and John Brantley along the way, all while leading the most prolific offense in state history. The Bethune-Cookman commitment is the heart of the Dragons’ run to the Class 3A title game.
Then there’s Jones, the youngest of the three, who already owns scholarship offers from most major Division I-A programs and will be one of the state’s top recruits next season. In leading Armwood to the Class 4A state title game, he has run for 1,300 yards and 23 touchdowns this season — as a junior.
And seven years ago, they shared the ball in Palmer’s wishbone offense, with Williams at quarterback, and Wilder and Jones behind him at tailback.
“There were a lot of things we could do out of the wishbone with the kind of players we had,” Wilder said. “It was kind of like Georgia Tech.
“You just went out there and did your thing. We were 11 years old. We didn’t watch film. We didn’t draw stuff up on the board that other teams do. Coaches would just go out there and call a number and we’d run a play. I think we were good enough to do that because we were a special group.”
Palmer said that 2003 team allowed just eight points all season in the six-team league. The Eagles didn’t allow opponents to touch the ball much, grinding the clock down — they played six-minute quarters — with their running game. They often limited opponents to three or four possessions a game, Palmer said.
“James is doing the same things he was doing back then, dragging guys down the field,” Palmer said. “Matt Jones was the same way. He was the quick hitter, the flashy kind of guy. The same way he throws the (deep) route he did back then. He always had a great arm. He was also the pitcher on my baseball team.”
All three played both ways — Wilder was a nose guard, Jones a linebacker and Williams a safety — and they were equally difficult to pull off the field.
“It was fun just getting in the uniform,” Williams said. “We were just playing a game that we love. There was just something about Saturday morning, waking up knowing you were gonna play that day.”
One of their most memorable moments was actually a miscue, when Wilder — who has 21 rushing touchdowns this season — spun around a group of tacklers and broke a touchdown run into the wrong end zone.
Other prominent local players were on that team, such as Hillsborough fullback Jamie Knott, Armwood receiver Ronnie Thomas, Armwood linebacker Harvellio Buie and Plant defensive lineman Bobby Richardson.
“We were unstoppable, man,” Jones said. “Oh my god, it was like an unbelievable little league team.”
But Wilder, Jones and Williams would often talk about playing together in high school. Jones said they all considered Hillsborough and Armwood, but ended up going their different ways.
But if they had stayed together?
“Whoooooo,” Williams said, shaking his head. “Man, looky here, oh my goodness. That would have been hype. Stuff happens though, and people go their separate ways.”
Regardless, the old teammates will be rooting each other on this weekend.
“We always said when we were little, ‘I hope we all go to the same high school and go to the same college,’ ” Wilder said. “We were young and we had these big dreams. Now we all compete against each other. We all still talk and we’re all here in the state championship.”
Photo: James Wilder Jr. is on the end, No. 32 as usual. Matt Jones is No. 33 in the back row, with No. 10 Quentin Williams right beside him.