TAMPA — Many years ago Mike and Audra Enos brought home a solid oak crib billed as “virtually indestructible” for their rambunctious 18-month-old son.
The crib’s manufacturers and department store salespeople clearly never envisioned a toddler like Rocky Enos.
It didn’t even last a year.
“He would rock in it, bang his head on it and then climb over it …he was an animal,” said Audra Enos, laughing at the memory. “It started splintering and then it started breaking down. He just tore it apart.”
And so it went on for years until Rocky Enos could use those destructive tendencies against running backs and tight ends.
Now as a senior middle linebacker for Wharton, Enos regards offenses much the same way he did that unfortunate crib. Enos is the furious soul of a Wildcats defense that is the grittier counterweight to a prolific offense spearheaded by 6-foot-6 junior quarterback Chase Litton.
Both units will need to be in synch in their playoff opener tonight when the Wildcats face Orlando Dr. Phillips, the state’s top-ranked Class 8A team. Last year, against the same team, on the same field, Wharton suffered a three-touchdown defeat that knocked it out of the playoffs.
“To knock off Dr. Phillips would be a big accomplishment for this ball club,” Wharton coach David Mitchell said. “I just hope they understand what they have lined up in front of them. We have to do everything right.”
The Wildcats (8-2) are better positioned to pull off the upset this time.
Many of their players now have the experience of playing in Dr. Phillips’ Bill Spoone Stadium. They are undefeated in five road games, winning those contests by an average of 33-7. And they have developed enough depth to give Litton a bevy of offensive targets and to allow senior defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III, one of the nation’s top recruits, to roam the secondary so offenses can no longer avoid him at cornerback.
But some of their greatest improvement has come from the 6-foot, 210-pound Enos, who gained about 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason and increased his already impressive production.
Enos has 133 tackles, 91 of them unassisted, two sacks and a recovered fumble. He averages 13.3 tackles per game, an increase of about three from his junior year.
“He came out this year determined to play on Saturdays,” said Wharton defensive coordinator Kiwaukee Thomas, a former NFL defensive back for eight seasons. “He’s been on a mission to be the best linebacker in Tampa and he’s played every game that way this year.”
Enos and his parents said his twin competitive and destructive streaks were apparent from an early age.
Audra Enos remembers a toddler who had little use for toys and instead found entertainment by pushing a heavy wooden chair all throughout the house. Mike Enos, a former professional wrestler sometimes known as “The Mauler,” talks about the time Rocky scored a touchdown and had a sack in a little-league championship game but was inconsolable afterward because he missed a handful of tackles.
“He was crying about this one tackle and they won the game,” Mike Enos said. “I told him, ‘Rocky, come on. That’s nothing to cry about win or lose.’ ”
His passion for football started to take shape around 10 or 11, they said. They recalled a visit to the doctor’s office when Rocky was told his broken finger would require surgery.
Rocky burst into tears, prompting the doctor to assure him he wouldn’t feel any pain from the procedure. “I don’t care about the pain,” Rocky told the doctor, according to Audra Enos. “I’m not going to be able to play football.”
By far, the pursuit of a future in football is what motivates Rocky.
“I don’t want to sit in a cubicle,” he said. “This is what I want to do.”
To that end, Enos has attacked the weight room and kitchen — yes, the kitchen — with the same vigor. To add pounds, Enos shrugged off his impulse to drink water and eat a salad and embraced a regular diet of protein shakes, steaks every other night and glasses of whole milk.
In part because of that calorie-busting routine, Enos has gained about 30-40 pounds in the past two years.
“I just don’t really eat all that much,” Enos said. “That’s my problem. But my dad fixed that real quick. He’s tried to beef me up.”
It has all culminated with a senior season that has earned him praise from coaches and opponents — Durant coach Mike Gottman was particularly effusive in his praise after Enos had 17 tackles in their game. “He was everywhere,” Gottman said.
He’ll need to do more of the same tonight against the Panthers, who boast at least two major college prospects in their backfield and several more on their roster.
Enos is eager to make amends for Wharton’s performance against Dr. Phillips last fall.
“I felt like we were intimidated last time,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen this time.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.