Tuesday was election day, but the race I’m most invested in won’t be decided for a few more weeks.
Ohio’s Mr. Football will be introduced during state championship week and for the first time in my 20-plus years of covering high school football in north central Ohio, the region has produced a viable candidate for the award.
Lexington’s Cade Stover checks all the boxes.
Before I begin stumping for Stover, however, we should review a brief history of Mr. Football.
The Associated Press began handing out the award in 1987 before the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association took over last year. Zanesville’s Buster Howe was the first winner of the award before embarking on an unremarkable and abbreviated career at Ohio State.
The following year, Euclid junior running back Robert Smith won the first of his back-to-back Mr. Football awards. Smith, too, had an abbreviated career at Ohio State. He led OSU in rushing in 1990, sat out the 1991 season to concentrate on track and returned to the football team in 1992, again leading the team in rushing. He was a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in the 1993 draft.
Since then there have been famous (Curtis Enis, 1993; Charles Woodson, 1994; Andy Katzenmoyer, 1995; Mitch Trubisky, 2012) and infamous (Maurice Clarett, 2001; Ray Williams, 2003; Erick Howard, 2008-2009) winners of the award.
So how is Mr. Football chosen?
There are seven districts in the state and the road to Mr. Football begins at the district level. Media members from each district meet after the regular season to decide the all-district teams. At that time, a list of players to be considered for All-Ohio honors is compiled and each district nominates its Mr. Football candidate.
The chairmen of the seven districts then hammer out the All-Ohio teams and make their cases for their district’s Mr. Football nominee. The district chairs then vote and Mr. Football is crowned.
If it all sounds political, it absolutely is. Further clouding the issue is the fact that there is no written criteria (that I am aware of) as to constitutes Mr. Football.
Is Mr. Football the best player in the state?
Is Mr. Football the most valuable player?
Is the Mr. Football award a body of work award or based solely on the current season?
Having spent more than a decade on the Associated Press’s Northwest District board, I feel I can offer a little additional insight into who is chosen as the Mr. Football candidate.
From my experience, Mr. Football is a major college recruit. There have been a handful of notable exceptions. Massillon Perry’s Keishaun Sims, the 2015 winner, played two seasons at Division II Ashland University. A pair of Mr. Football winners, Fostoria’s Derek Kidwell (1991) and Mentor’s Bart Tanski (2007) went to Bowling Green. Most winners, however, are headed to a Power Five conference school.
Mr. Football normally comes from a big high school. Again, there have been some exceptions. Enis went to Mississinawa Valley and 1999 winner Bam Childress attended the now-defunct Bedford St. Peter Chanel. Childress, it should be noted, won over a quarterback from Findlay named Ben Roethlisberger. Childress was headed to Ohio State and Roethlisberger, who smashed all sorts of records during his one season at quarterback, was going to Miami of Ohio.
Mr. Football normally leads his team deep into the playoffs. Athens quarterback Joe Burrow (2014) led the Bulldogs to the Division III state final, where they lost to Toledo Central Catholic and running back Michael Warren, who would win Mr. Football in 2016.
Mr. Football is almost always a running back or quarterback. Katzenmoyer was known for his defensive exploits as a linebacker when he won in 1995. Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s Dante Booker Jr., the 2013 winner, was also known primarily for his play at linebacker.
Mr. Football is often a multi-sport athlete. Robert Smith’s name still dots the Mehock Relays record book and Piqua running back Brandon Saine (2006) still owns the state record in the 100 meter dash. Last year’s Mr. Football, Wadsworth quarterback Joey Baughman, verbally committed to wrestle at Virginia before de-committing and accepting a football scholarship to FCS school Elon.
So that brings us to Stover.
The ultra-athletic Lexington senior checks every box.
He verbally committed to Ohio State in April choosing the Buckeyes over Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame among others. He had more than 20 Division I scholarship offers (major college recruit).
Lexington is a Division III school and is still alive in the playoffs. The Minutemen started the season 0-3 and were 1-4 at the midway point, but have won six straight and will play Sandusky in the Region 10 semifinals Friday at Willard High School (big high school going deep into the playoffs).
Stover is going to be a defensive player at Ohio State, but as mentioned previously there is a precedent for Mr. Football being primarily a defensive player. And if his 166 tackles in 11 games weren’t enough, he also has rushed for more than 1,400 yards in his first season as a running back (running back with gaudy statistics).
Stover led the Lexington basketball team to a berth in the Division II Final Four last March. Barring injury, he will become the program’s career scoring leader early in his senior year. This is a program that produced NBA power forward Jamie Feick (multi-sport athlete).
But the real reason I think Stover is a front-runner for this year’s Mr. Football award is because I trust my eyes.
I have covered high school football in north central Ohio since 1996, first in Ashland and, for the past 19 years, in Mansfield. I have never seen a more dominant defensive player.
There was a time early in his career when I thought maybe his tackle stats were inflated (he has more than 600 career stops). I stopped believing that during his sophomore year, when he helped the Minutemen reach the regional championship game. It seemed like he was in on every tackle in every playoff game that year. Maybe it’s because Lexington’s defense is designed around him. If you have a big gun you should fire it as often as possible.
When Lexington breaks into position groups during pregame warm-ups, Stover is by himself. He is a position group of one because nobody else on the roster —or any roster — can do what he does. You always know where Stover is on defense and it’s almost always where the play has come to an end.
Warren, Ohio’s 2016 Mr. Football winner, found that out when Toledo Central Catholic beat Lex in the regional championship game that year.
“I’ve played against a lot of good defenses in my years in high school and I think Lexington was at the top of my list,” Warren said on that snowy night at Tiffin’s Frost-Kalnow Stadium. “They tackled me in the backfield, which I’m not really used to. Number 8 (Stover) did a great job of tackling me by himself. I’ve never been hit like that.”
Warren, by the way, is one of the NCAA’s leading ground gainers this fall for the University of Cincinnati. He ranks 15th nationally with 931 rushing yards in nine games.
As impressive as Stover’s statistics are, what Lex coach Taylor Gerhardt likes most are his intangibles.
“You guys see that kid. He’s a man,” Gerhardt said after last week’s regional-opening win over Tiffin Columbian (Stover had 23 tackles and picked off two passes on defense and rushed for 170 yards and two scores on offense). “You see a talented, hard-nosed player but what we see is a kid who gets his brothers together and leads them with that never-say-die attitude.
“He’s one of the best players in the nation. He’s going to make plays. But what we see is a kid with high character and a great leader," Gerhardt said.
That sounds like everything Mr. Football ought to be.