Keeping on the right track

Published 10:30 pm Tuesday, September 9, 2008

LINDEN — Patriot running back Shantrell Braxton is no stranger to mistakes. He doesn’t claim to be. He readily speaks of past errors in judgment and how they have led him to where he is today.

“Yeah. I’ve made some bad decisions,” Braxton says with an accompanying look that is ripe with both acceptance and regret. “But I’m a child and we make mistakes. But I’ve got to learn from it and keep on moving forward and keep on the right track.”

“I’ve got to keep my head on right and know not to make the same mistakes over again,” he adds after a brief pause.

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He sits in a classroom next to head coach Andro Williams’ office in a field house across from George P. Austin school in Linden. He has just finished another practice at his new school.

The 1A program looking to continue building a legacy under its second-year head coach wasn’t on Braxton’s radar this time last season.

At that point, he was suiting up in Demopolis blue and black, forming one half of the Tigers’ terrific tailback tandem with then freshman sensation DaMarcus James.

“I know he was a part of something special, but he blew his opportunity there,” Williams says of Braxton’s time with the 5A Tigers.

Braxton’s running ability had nearly reached fabled status in the City of the People. Tiger fans once spoke both of what Braxton’s talent promised the Demopolis Tigers and of the doors it could open for him at the next level.

Unfortunately for the stud running back, his immaturity was quickly becoming as notorious as his ability to run the football.

Then came the summer. Missed practices and off-field incidents landed Braxton in a precarious position, forcing Demopolis head coach Tom Causey to make a decision about his future with the team.

“Sometimes people need fresh starts and maybe a fresh start was the best thing for him,” Causey says of Braxton, a player for which he has openly expressed his concern.

Since the parting of ways and Braxton’s eventual enrollment at Linden following his mother’s move down U.S. Hwy 43, there has been murmuring about what actually went down and supposed ill feelings from one party or the other.

But Causey, who was the first to sing the praises of Braxton’s ability prior to the split, still speaks highly of the player he once called a legitimate Division I college prospect.

“Shantrell could have a bright future. We hope nothing but the best for him,” Causey says of his former back. “If Shantrell ever reaches his potential, he’ll be as good as he wants to be.”

The numbers through his first two games as a Patriot, highlighted by a 181-yard rushing performance against 3A Cottage Hill in the season opener, suggest that Braxton is closing in on that potential. However, Williams offers that the achieving of Braxton’s potential is a process and includes far more than his performance on the football field.

“When I met with Shantrell, I told him it was going to be a clean slate with him,” Williams says of his first meeting with the young man. “I told him there was a team here before he got here. We talked about the adjustments he was going to have to make in life as well as on the football field and in the classroom.”

Since that time, Williams candidly admits, some small part of him has been on the lookout for a mishap or slip up. It is a natural reaction. Yet all he has found are reasons to believe in the senior; evidence that some switch may have finally flipped within him.

“I’ve been real pleased with the way he’s come in and has shown signs of being a leader,” Williams says of Braxton’s personal maturation. “That’s one of the things I’ve noticed is how bright he is and how quick he’s picked stuff up.”

Williams turns to Labor Day as a prime example of Braxton’s apparent desire to succeed as a Patriot. According to the head coach, the team scheduled an early morning practice session in which the players were to report before the dew even began to dry. Williams could scarcely contain his excitement as he doted on the first player to arrive for the activity — the newest member of his football team — Braxton.

“It’s very important because I’m a senior and I can’t set a bad example out here lagging around,” Braxton says of his refined practice habits.

Under the surface of his comments lies one of the chief reasons Braxton strives for more than he did in his previous football life with Demopolis; a concern for his teammates. It is something he admittedly did not put at the forefront of his consciousness during his time as a Tiger.

The circumstances surrounding the move were understandably difficult. His transgressions had left him wondering if he even had a future in football.

But his mother’s move to a new town left him at a new school. And the grace of a new coach left him an opportunity to learn a new system with a new team. It was a new lease on Braxton’s athletic life, one that would ultimately require a tremendous amount of giving on his part and an unconditional acceptance on the part of his new teammates.

“I didn’t feel any pressure. They took me in like I’d been here all along,” Braxton says. “I feel like I’m a brother of the team right now. “

“The team responded to him very well because most of us really knew him before he got here,” senior quarterback Ajalon Bruno says of the team’s willingness to embrace its new member. “He’s a good teammate. He tries to keep everybody focused and he works hard in the weight room.”

“He’s been able to fit right in ever since the first day of practice. As soon as he got here, we embraced him,” tailback Maurice Tate — the team’s unquestioned emotional leader — says of his new backfield mate. “He’s smart. He catches on quick. He’s a big part of our offense. He makes me a whole lot better. He goes hard so that means I’ve go to turn it up an extra notch. He’s a good team player. He brings good character to the sport. He brings good heart. He’s just a good person overall.”

While Williams is high on the progress his new player has made, he is adamant that there is room for further growth, comparing him with running buddy Tate to illustrate his point.

“Maurice is more mature as far as being a communicator. Shantrell is more mature as an athlete,” Williams says. “We’re working on (Braxton’s) maturity as a person. Being around Maurice helps a lot with that.”

Williams notes Braxton appears to have accepted Tate, last year’s unanimous offensive and defensive captain, as a role model and has put forth noticeable effort to keep in line with the pace setter.

According to Williams, the Cottage Hill game provided another example of how far Braxton has come during his time with the Patriots.

Linden was leading in the second half and on the verge of a virtual knockout blow. Braxton, already having reeled off more than 100 yards in the game, was on the sidelines while fighting a stomach ailment. Tate walked up to his ailing backfield mate and issued the call to action.

“Let’s go,” Tate said to him.

Without question or hesitation, Braxton put on his helmet and jogged onto the field.

“I’m a different person because I had to change a whole lot,” Braxton says. “You’ve got to adjust and accept the challenge.”