- Feature Story
- George Becnel
- December 06, 2017 - 8:24am
They may not be superheroes, but they sure are West St. John’s Iron Men.
Players such as Jayuan Pierce, Kyree Thorne, Kelon Gardner and Covan Barnes are among an elite group of throwback players who see action on both sides of the football and rarely leave the game.
Pierce and Thorne are primarily offensive line starters who sub on defense and Gardner and Barnes are defensive line starters who enter the game in certain packages on offense.
“It’s all about aggressiveness,” Pierce said. “It’s all about physicality on both sides of the ball. That’s the trenches – it’s all about being the person in front.”
Pierce and the others are on the front lines with the Rams on the cusp of a state championship when West St. John takes on Kentwood at noon Thursday in the Superdome in New Orleans with the Class 1A title on the line.
If the Rams’ two-way players in the trenches seem part Justice League and part special ops, Thorne definitely comes by it honestly. Thorne spent last summer in basic training in the National Guard.
“He’s a real tough kid,” West St. John coach Brandon Walters said of Thorne. “He does whatever you ask him to do. He can play inside at d-tackle or he can play end. He also plays offensive tackle and can be moved to guard as well. He’s a real stand-up guy character-wise.”
Thorne lost 40 pounds during basic training and returned to Edgard a lean, mean, football machine.
“West St. John was the first place where I learned how to be disciplined and work hard. I will tell anybody any day, if you can survive what we do on a daily basis, basic training in the army in a breeze,” Thorne said. “Here, everybody pushes everybody, and it’s not easy.
“I’m definitely in a lot better shape. Before I went to basic training, I was only able to play offense before I’d be tired as a dog. Now, I’m playing special teams, offense and defense. I’m definitely in much better shape.”
Thorne is far from the only West St. John player in great shape, however.
“Jayuan Pierce is a really scrappy kid. He’s one of the toughest kids on this team. He’s extremely strong. He kills it in the weight room. Between him and Kelon Gardner, they may be our strongest squatters. They both are in the 450-500 pound range. To be their size and pushing that stuff is amazing,” said Walters.
There’s also something else the coach said he admires about Pierce.
“He plays with a really high motor and he can go at it on both sides of the ball. He gets after you. He’s a real nasty guy inside,” Walters said.
Gardner, Walters said, is the boss of the group.
“He doesn’t just about everything. I wish I had 20 of him. He’s an excellent kid. He has gone through a lot and has come a long way. Because of his height, he doesn’t get a lot of love but you can’t stop him. You can’t block him up front. Double team or one-on-one, he’s been at it with the best of them,” said Walters.
That attribute is something Gardner takes to heart.
“I like to take charge. I like to make sure everybody is on track,” Gardner said. “I like to make sure our defense knows what’s going on, make sure everybody knows what they are doing and working as one.
“I like to take on the bigger opponent. I like to take on most of the load, just be aggressive, come off the ball, and make plays against their best.”
What all the players have in common is versatility. At one time or another, they all have played on both sides of the line. Some even have seen action lining up at fullback or tight end.
A terror on defense, Barnes has even lined up at quarterback – at least in practice.
“The guys weren’t getting it right. We put him in and told him run the zone read. Before you know it, they are running option. We’re like, ‘we don’t want all of that.’ He’s running the whole program. We weren’t calling the plays. He’s getting them and he’s running the offense himself,” Walters recalled with a laugh.
“It was very fun. I enjoyed every bit of it. I feel like I can do anything,” said Barnes, who played quarterback back in little league.
A starter since the eighth grade, Brett Bailey, had been a longtime member of the group. Now, he sort of qualifies as an offensive specialist because of his all-important role at center.
“Brett Bailey has played some defensive tackle for us this year. We’ve kind of kept him out of that toward the end because he handles the ball. I tell him, ‘you are too valuable.’ He says, ‘OK, Coach,’ but I know he doesn’t like it,” Walters said.
“Brett is the one that controls the o-line. He’s very smart and he’s very aggressive against his opponent,” Gardner offered.
“He’s our offensive line leader,” concurred Pierce. “If I’m having trouble knowing or remembering a play, I go to Brett because he is real aggressive.”
One of the best ways to keep a defense fresh is for the offense to go on long, sustained drives. For West St. John, many of the defenders the Rams are trying to rest are the same guys logging numerous snaps on offense.
“I think it’s just a mindset,” said Thorne. “We want it more than the other team so we just do what we’ve got to do.”
‘We know we don’t have much (in terms of squad size) so we use what we have and get it done that way,” Gardner chipped in.”
One way the Rams’ Iron Men can get a bit of a break is by forcing three-and-outs on defense.
“We play and train for that. Give me your best three plays and get out of there and go to the bench. It works for us,” Walters said.
“We take pride in that as a defense. We really don’t like people crossing our 50. It’s a pride thing,” said Barnes.
“If they can’t cross the 50, they can’t score,” added Gardner.
A common mindset has helped to generate a mutual admiration society among the group.
“Throughout the week, I tell myself that if I am able to block Kelon or Covan at least once, then I can take the best from what anybody else has to offer. As long as I’ve been here, our d-line has been the best d-line that I have ever seen,” Thorne said.
A state championship, the group agrees, is just a matter of playing “West St. John football” one last time.
In case anyone is curious as to what exactly “West St. John football” is, Pierce has the answer.
“Being together, playing aggressive, flying to the ball and just give it your all and have fun while you are doing it.”