By Gabriel Stovall
McDONOUGH, Ga. — Every Friday night, without fail, at 6:55 p.m. Brayden Rush can feel his cell phone buzzing in his pocket.
When he reaches in to take it out, he opens his text messages and is never taken by surprised, but is always inspired.
“Pressure isn’t anything bad. Pressure is a privilege. People don’t rise to the occasion. You sink to the level of your training.”
The message comes from Rush’s dad by way of a Navy Seal. Although Rush’s Germany-born dad wasn’t a military man, Rush’s grandfather was — which explains why each time Rush and his dad sees a military movie on TV, they’ve got to stop what they’re doing and watch it.
“My dad’s always told me about the maturity thing,” Rush said. “Discipline and all that. Since age nine or 10 he talked to me about maturity. He pounded it in my head. He’d always tell me that I need to be more mature than my age.”
Rush said the maturity talks are paying off, now that he’s the starting quarterback for the No. 1 ranked Class A football team in Georgia. Being an Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy football player is a privilege. But leading a talented defending state champion isn’t without its pressures.
That’s why the weekly Friday night message resonates with the 5-foot-10, 185 pound sophomore. It’s a reinforcement of some of the stuff he tells himself each Friday night to keep himself centered and calm.
“When I play, I’m always not nervous Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Rush said. “But around lunch time on Friday it hits me. I tell myself I’m going to be okay. I’m human. Sometimes you’ll make mistakes, but you go back to what I’ve always learned and played over my head a thousand times before the game.”
It also helps that he’s got guys like senior running back Trevor Gear doing and saying things to keep him loose.
“Probably after the first drive, when the drive stops and we walk to the sidelines, I look around and I always see Trevor,” he said. “Me and him talk before the game. We talk every day and text a lot. He’ll say something that’ll make me laugh or get me pumped, and I’m good.”
Said Gear: “I say different things, but some of the time I say, ‘You’re up so let’s go eat, man. If we execute on every play good things will happen.’”
It’s the reason why when you watch Rush play, he doesn’t look like a sophomore in his first year at the helm of a state champion’s offense. He looks like he’s been here before — like he belongs. He doesn’t have the speed of a guy like 2015 QB D.J. Hammond. But his confidence — albeit a quiet type — is evident.
Rush says a lot of that confidence doesn’t really have much to do with him, though.
“I think I’m an average quarterback,” said Rush, who also wrestles and joined the ELCA baseball team’s pitching rotation as a freshman last year. “I don’t have as much to do on Fridays as people think I do.”
He attributes that to the supporting cast of offensive studs that surrounds him, starting with running backs Gear and Josh Mays, and wide receiver Sean Queen.
“I mean, obviously when you have these Division I caliber running backs with you, and, in my opinion, the best receiver in the state of Georgia, I don’t have to do much,” he said. “I just put the athletes in position for them to make plays.”
It also helps that ELCA boasts, in Alex Usry, one of the top kickers “in the country,” according to Rush.
“With those guys, and with a kicker like Alex, I feel like if we get inside the 50 we’re gonna score,” he said. “We’re either getting six or we’re getting three. All my job is to get inside the 50. Plus when you’ve got a good defense behind you, it makes things easier.”
ELCA coach Jonathan Gess acknowledges his signal caller’s youth and inexperience, but he also expresses his own confidence in what the young gun can do.
“You don’t replace a guy like DJ (Hammond), but Brayden Rush is going to be a good competitor for us,” Gess said. “We’re going to kind of curtail the offense for him. We’re going to do some things that work for him and his skill set. He’s a guy that’s been around our system. We think he can become good for us.”
Indeed, the whole ELCA experience is nothing new for Rush. He said he’s been close to Gess since Rush was in the sixth grade. He had a front row seat on the career of former quarterback Dalton Etheridge, whom Rush says now serves as his quarterback coach.
Plus, he’s familiar with many of the stars and standouts on this current team, and he said he knows them well enough to know that the unselfish desire to win is commonality they all share.
“Like I said before, we have a bunch of Division I athletes on this team,” Rush said. “Guys like Tre’ (Douglas), Khaleb Hood, Trevor and Harrison (Taylor). Josh Mays. All those guys. We played baseball and football together from age four to eight and we never lost a game. Usually when you have players with that caliber, you’d think they’d be selfish athletes, but these guys are selfless. We rose to the top together once before and we want to try and do it again.”
Gear said he sees Rush’s desire to stay No. 1, even at this early stage in his career.
“I know he wants to be great at what he does, and he works every day to try to accomplish that,” Gear said. “We feel real confident with him at the controls. We think we can still be a potent offense.”
And if the early season action is any indication, Rush looks well on his way to being a championship caliber producer.
He looked impressive in the team’s last preseason tune-up against Mount Zion-Jonesboro, a Class AAAAAA school that has its own cache of Division I prospects.
Rush accounted for three first half touchdowns as ELCA took a 36-0 halftime lead over the Bulldogs in that scrimmage. And then, in almost instant replay fashion, Rush helped the Chargers to a 36-0 halftime lead over Class AAAAA Eagle’s Landing in last Friday’s opener.
He finished an efficient 3-for-5 passing for 101 yards and two touchdown tosses. He rode the coattails of a stingy defense that gave up only 68 yards of total offense through the first three quarters.
He’ll have another shot to show his chops against a Class AAAAAA school Friday when Jonesboro comes to ELCA’s Commitment Field Friday to start a four game home stand where he hopes he and his teammates can re-create some of their youth football magic.
“I just think back to those times when all of us were playing together as kids,” he said. “We never lost a game. We went out there and gave it 110 percent. And that’s what we want to do now. We want to glorify God, get closer to God in this season and become the best team possible.”