By Trey Williams
Gerald Sensabaugh reached the state semifinals while playing football at Dobyns-Bennett. He made a victory-preserving interception as a freshman when East Tennessee State beat No. 1 Georgia Southern and blocked an NCAA record three punts against Georgia Southern two years later.
After ETSU discontinued football following his junior season in 2003, Sensabaugh started for a North Carolina team that beat undefeated and fourth-ranked Miami via a field goal on the final play. And he started 60 games for the Dallas Cowboys as part of an eight-year NFL career.
But shortly after the first-year David Crockett head coach suffered his first career loss when a final-minute field goal attempt fell short to conclude a 37-35 setback to Campbell County, Sensabaugh said repeatedly that football’s never been more enjoyable than since the Pioneers hired him last winter.
“This is funner than playing,” Sensabaugh said with a big, convincing smile while his younger Pioneers were still shrugging off the agony of defeat. “Honestly, it’s funner than playing. I get to have the controller now.”
Sensabaugh said he feels most in control from the press box. He began the Campbell County game in the press box, excitedly relaying information to the sideline via headset like a video-game addict on the verge of triumph. During the pre-snap before Crockett quarterback Cade Larkins completed a long pass to John Kollie, Sensabaugh yelled that option should go for a touchdown – and it nearly did.
But after a “bust” came from a communication breakdown, he looked like he might use his NFL record 46-inch vertical leap to go from the press box to the sideline.
“I started in the box and then I came down to the field just to give the kids that presence,” Sensabaugh said. “I’ll experiment with it. I can see the game a little bit better from the top. It’s kind of hard to see from the sidelines. I have a lot of great coaches helping me out on the sideline.
“You can see the game really good from the top. During a game I can’t even call a timeout once I come back down there. You have to designate somebody.”
Crockett had to use all three of its timeouts to stop the clock and get the ball back against Campbell County during the endgame of a wildly entertaining contest. So with no timeouts and facing fourth-and-six from the Campbell County 26-yard line with 41.9 seconds left on a clock stopped for an incompletion, Sensabaugh had the first huge decision of his two-game career.
He elected to let Gio Ortiz attempt a 43-yard field goal – an understandable decision. Of course, going for the first down would’ve been hard to argue against, too.
“He’s kicked some 48- and 50-yarders in practice before,” Sensabaugh said. “We just wanted to give him a try. I don’t know, maybe we should’ve (gone for it).
“It was a tough call. He was right at his max. He’ll be good kicker for us.”
Still, some five minutes after the heartbreaking loss concluded, a smiling Sensabaugh was beaming with pride while commending his players’ effort against an older, well-coached team with a quality quarterback and capable receivers. Disappointment didn’t keep Crockett fans from giving the Pioneers an ovation immediately afterward.
And it was easy to see why. The Pioneers are young and were dealt a key injury when starting running back Ronquille Joyner went down in an August scrimmage at Science Hill. Freshman running back Prince Kollie, who’d been a receiver on the roster four days earlier, rushed for 202 yards and four TDs against Campbell County. Sensabaugh was looking for more productivity following a season-opening 13-8 win at Seymour, and Kollie predicted he’d rush for at least 200 yards.
“Prince said he was going for 200 (on Thursday),” Sensabaugh said. “We were like, ‘Man, go ahead.’ I knew he had the capability of doing it. … He’s a physical runner. He has great vision. He’s still able to get to the edge when he wants to. He has a great stiff-arm. He’s a guy that guys wouldn’t want to tackle. … We’re gonna ride him for four years.”
The Pioneers have a number of young horses. Sensabaugh’s quarterback (Larkins) is a sophomore, as is his best receiver (Donta Hackler). They ad-libbed a couple of long, clutch completions against Campbell County.
“The thing I was surprised about when I came to Crockett is they have a lot of talent here, and a lot of it is our younger guys,” Sensabaugh said. “And younger guys retain information a little bit better. My saying for my football team is, ‘Hey, if you let a younger guy get even with you I’m going with that younger guy.’ It’s more of an NFL mentality and a college mentality, because you can mold that player for years to come.
“We’re depending on a lot of young guys to come out here and make plays. Once they mature and become fully developed this team will be freakin’ crazy.”
Crockett was a crazy scene Friday, replete with fireworks, a Rolling Thunder parade of motorcycles and Pioneers “Ring of Honor” inductions for Josh Edens, Justin Wade and TK Hill.
“That was awesome,” Sensabaugh said. “Our community does a great job supporting us. I can tell by the atmosphere. Our fans are some of the best fans.
“(Athletic director) Josh Kite does a great job putting on a show with fireworks, has music playing. The scenery is great here. I love this school. I just want everybody to believe in our community that we’re for real.”
Campbell County coach Justin Price was impressed.
“They did some things defensively … and they kind of threw wrinkles in their offense with the shotgun,” Price said. “And No. 21 (Kollie) running the ball – he’s a special player. They’ve got a really good receiver in No. 13 (Hackler).”
Prince Kollie said there were many positives for Crockett to take away from the loss. Sensabaugh agreed.
“The kids played hard,” he said. “I’m not holding my head down. A lot of our kids were. They showed a lot of emotion. They expected to win that game. I was so proud of ‘em. … I told ‘em that was the best game I’ve ever been a part of.”