NILES — Michigan-style winged helmets, the fire-breathing Red Dragon protecting the turf, Bo Rein Memorial Stadium.
If there’s any football program within the Mahoning Valley that is steeped in tradition, it’s the Niles McKinley Red Dragons.
With that being said, it’s no surprise that sophomore Antuan Gardner epitomizes what a Red Dragon is. His father Antuan Gardner Sr. is a 2004 Niles grad, and set the stage for his son to make his mark years later.
“I’ve been playing football since I was five, it’s in my blood,” Gardner said. “It pushes me because you know, you want to be that family member that’s on top. You want to challenge all your other family members to be the best, and it pushes me to do good too, just to get bragging rights.
“Carrying the tradition, it’s pretty interesting, sometimes it’s hard to carry it. It feels good to carry on the tradition at Niles because it’s such a great tradition. There’s nothing like it anywhere else, and I can guarantee it.”
When an opportunity comes knocking, sometimes it’s hard to step up as a freshman but that wasn’t an issue for Gardner last fall. After senior Travis Molnar sustained an ACL injury during summer camp, the door opened for Gardner to see the Friday nights lights early in his varsity career.
“When I found out I was going to be the starting running back for Niles, I was really excited.” Gardner said. “I had told (linebacker) coach (Chris) Marsco that I was going to try to when we were playing basketball during the (eighth-grade) basketball season. I was like ‘Coach, Marsco, I can bet you that I can get a starting spot on varsity.’ When I heard I was going to start, he was the first person I looked to.
“He thought I could do it, but he said it was going to be a challenge, and what had helped me this year was the game speed. It helped me get used to the speed of the game.”
With 114 carries, Gardner tallied 564 yards and four scores during his freshman season last fall. Seeing time as both a linebacker and a running back this season, he’s already accumulated some big yards, including a total of 689 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
In last Friday’s contest against East, Gardner rushed for 235 yards and four touchdowns. He also scored all four Niles touchdowns on Friday while rushing for 206 yards against Lakeview.
Gardner finds a way to bob and weave through defensive lines, with evasiveness being a specialty for the 5-foot-10, 190 pound sophomore.
“I think the way he plays with low-pad level through the hole, he typically gains a lot of yards after contact,” Niles head coach Jim Parry said. “We’ve really started to notice the last couple of games that he’s started to really fit into our schemes with what we do, and I think he has a really good understanding of how to hit the hole, where to hit the hole, when to look to cut back and when to push it though.
“I go back to last year when he probably wouldn’t have played, but it has really put him ahead of where we would have expected him to be if he was just coming in and being short of our relief guy.”
Being skilled at pass blocking and pass protection, his presence on the defensive side is being built, but it’s always a war of attrition whenever an athlete is a two-way player.
“He’s really done a lot of his damage in the second half here early on, and that shows you that he’s in good shape, he takes care of his body well,” Parry said. “Playing both ways is not easy, but we kinda challenge our guys to kinda pride ourselves on that because we want our best guys out there.”
When it boils down to it, Gardner is quickly putting his name on the map. But, there’s nothing sweeter than breaking through the defensive line.
“While I’m running, I build up speed. I’ll start off strong and I like to finish strong as well,” Gardner said. “When I feel a player grab my jersey, I just remember all the leg training I did, I just keep my legs moving, I feel like I can break this.
“It feels good, just making a defender miss, it just feels like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m about to go make a play right now.”
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