The Hillside Journey

Nov. 11, 2010 7:40 pm

Producer’s note: As Hillside High attempts to win its first state championship in school history, reesenews will follow their progress in a multi-part series. In this installment, Hillside finishes their regular season campaign with a de facto conference title game against Northern High School.

DURHAM
Friday night, Durham County Stadium, 0-0, first quarter.

Rolling left into a pack of defenders, Vad Lee found trouble. It was third down and goal to go for the undefeated Hillside Hornets, but penalties had pushed them back to the 13-yard line. Their first drive had also stalled near the goal line, and failure here would give Durham’s Northern High, underdogs by any measure, confidence and momentum in a game that would decide the PAC-6 conference championship. Lee looked downfield, but his primary and secondary receivers were covered. As crucial seconds ticked away, the blue and gold Northern defense converged.

10 Wins, Zero Losses

Hillside High School is a low, white building on Fayetteville Road in south-central Durham County. Their football team is ranked somewhere among the state’s top 10, as high as third and as low as eighth, depending on whom you ask. The last and only time Hillside went undefeated was 1943, and Friday night presented the school with an opportunity to complete a perfect regular season for the first time in more than 70 years.

That original flawless campaign came in the segregation era, when Hillside was an all-black high school. Despite forced integration in 1969, the demographics haven’t changed significantly. Unlike the other Durham high schools, the vast majority of Hillside’s student population comes from the city proper. Eighty-three percent of students at Hillside are black compared to two percent white, while at Northern, which draws both from the city and the rural areas in northern Durham County, the ratio is more balanced at 50 percent to 41 percent.

The Hornets stormed through the first 10 games in the season in dominating fashion, averaging 40 points per game and conceding only 10. Vad Lee, the starting quarterback, was the crucial ingredient in that success. As a junior, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 190-pound phenom amassed 2,013 passing yards to go with 600 on the ground. This year, he’d led Hillside to the brink of perfection on the strength of a fabulous senior season. Coming into the Northern game, he boasted a 58 percent completion rate and 1,820 yards passing. He also averaged over 10 yards per rush, and passed and ran for 17 touchdowns each.

During his junior season, the offers began to roll in: Auburn, South Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, East Carolina, Maryland, UNC, Wake Forest. In a small press conference at Hillside in late August, Lee committed to Georgia Tech. Last weekend, he was selected to play in the Shrine Bowl, the annual all-star game pitting the best players from North Carolina against the best from South Carolina.

Greatness

Lee is the reason I came to Durham County Stadium. I’d been reading recaps of prep football scores in the newspaper as the playoffs approached, and his name appeared again and again. Hillside had a chance to become the greatest team in school history, and they were facing a Northern team who, at 4-1 in conference, could clinch a share of the PAC-6 title with an upset. And while those storylines were interesting, my true motivations centered on Lee.

Here’s why: as a kid, I grew up in an area that didn’t produce great athletes. The best of the best from upstate New York might play in Division 3 schools, and that’s if they were lucky. In my hometown, Saranac Lake, the tendency was for the strong athletes to quit college sometime during their freshman season (big fish floundering outside the small pond) and spend the rest of their lives closing down the local bars.

But watching those teams, I always wondered: what were the real stars like when they played in high school? The ones on TV, the brilliant men my friends and I all revered? Their speed and strength and athletic ability must have utterly dwarfed the competition. In my child’s mind, I longed to see the displays of dominance I imagined, to watch the contrast play out on a real, live field. I wanted their excellence highlighted and set off by the average high school athlete. I wanted immortals against mere humans.

The Escape Artist

Vad Lee, as I said, was in trouble.

But the truth about athletes of a certain caliber is that they’re never in as much trouble as you think. As he scrambled on third down with the game scoreless, I didn’t quite understand. He seemed to be swallowed up by the Northern defense. All the escape routes were closed off. The play was dead.

Until you see it firsthand, you cannot comprehend. It isn’t logical, how players with that unquantifiable elusiveness can change a play’s narrative in a heartbeat; how the emotion of trouble isn’t something they experience; how containment, for their opponents, is the most tenuous of concepts. It isn’t even fair.

With a couple jukes, a speedy backpedal, a broken tackle, and a reversal of field, the dead play to the left instantly became a race to the right. The change in direction and Lee’s unlikely emergence from the defensive horde produced a worried murmur on the Northern sideline. This verbalized anxiety is the hallmark and the privilege of a great athlete, and its opposite could be heard in the visitor’s stands across the field — a groundswell of possibility, a rising roar. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen this kind of electricity.

Lee was in a dead sprint for the right sideline, somewhere just beyond the 15. By the time he was ready to turn the corner, he’d created plenty of space between himself and the pursuing linemen and linebackers. His speed had also left most of the defensive backs lagging behind. To catch up, they were forced to take an obtuse angle that left only a slight chance of confronting Lee near the end zone. The hope for a sack had changed to a prayer for any kind of tackle at all.

When Lee raced past where I stood on the sideline, only feet away, he was in full stride. The defensive backs raced over to meet him near the one-yard line. Lee went airborne. With the ball extended, he bravely fulfilled the promise of his great escape. The defensive backs rose for the mid-air collision, and all parties spun sideways. Somewhere in the chaos, the ball broke the plane. The referee confirmed his destiny. Touchdown.

The Northern players beside me were silent. I made eye contact with a photographer to my right, and we both wore the same stupid grin. When Lee hopped up easily, almost casually, to join his celebrating teammates, I made a connection over time with the question I’d pondered years earlier. What was it like when the rarified athletes of the world were high school kids? What was it like to see the contrast?

Now I knew.

The System and the Favorite

In North Carolina, there are four classifications for athletics. The schools with the highest classification are 4A, while those with the lowest are 1A. When the football playoffs begin, 64 teams are selected from each class, and then the classes are split in half based on population. 4A schools will be divided into 4A and 4AA, for example, and this results in a system where eight state championships are contested on three different college fields (UNC, N.C. State, and Wake Forest) on December 11.

Hillside ranks 8th among all schools, according to the website MaxPreps, but they’ll be re-classified into the smaller of the two big-school tournaments. Four of the teams ranked above them will play in a separate tournament, the larger 4AA championship. The other three are in the 4A class, but will fall in the opposite side of the bracket since they’re all located in the western part of the state (the North Carolina system is designed to pit a team from the east against a team from the west in the state championship). The long and short of all this is that Hillside will be the favorite to reach the 4A championship game.

And with a victory against Northern in their last regular season game, they would earn a #1 seed and the right to host every playoff game until the championship in Winston-Salem. The stakes were high.

Northern’s Plan

Still, it became clear immediately that North Carolina is not Texas. Northern High was technically the home team, but since both schools are in Durham and County Stadium is so large, that provided no advantage. Each team seemed to bring anywhere between 250 and 350 fans, an absurdly small total considering the importance of the game, the skill of the players, and the size of the high schools (combined, they’re home to over 2,500 students).

Before the game, I spoke with Northern coach Anthony Sullivan. He took the job in 2008 and struggled to hit the ground running. The school had been a powerhouse in the recent past, but Sullivan inherited a program that had fallen on hard times. Last year, Northern went 0-11, but they’ve already clinched a playoff spot in 2010. With a 5-5 record, including 4-1 in conference, Sullivan’s rebuilding process has started to bear fruit.

He told me that avoiding turnovers would be crucial, but that he liked his team’s chances. When I asked about Vad Lee, he said what coaches usually say when they’re about to face a top athlete. We want to contain him, not stop him. We can’t afford to concede the big play. We need to avoid turnovers and keep our offense on the field.

“A lot of these kids grow up together, they live in the same neighborhoods,” he told me. “We have kids on our team who played middle school football with kids on their team. They know him [Lee], and they’re friends, and they talk regularly.”

As the game began, Sullivan and his coaches stood together in packs. They were roaring at the players, but it struck me that their message was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, especially by football standards. They played off the momentum of the first defensive stop, and they tried to keep spirits high after Lee’s spectacular touchdown.

But on Friday, avoiding the big play would prove nearly impossible. Vad Lee seemed to have it in for his old friends.

Potential and the Expectation of Failure

The first thing that strikes you about Lee is his physical composure. Hillside Coach Antonio King runs his offense out of the “Pistol” formation, a relatively new alignment invented in 2004 and derived from the shotgun. The quarterback stands four yards behind the center, at a speculative distance from the line of scrimmage. Unlike the shotgun, though, the running back stands behind the quarterback like the more traditional single-back set. This has the benefit of giving the quarterback added time, mobility, and vision that he would lack under center, while allowing for more variety and speed in the running game than would be possible in the shotgun.

Standing behind center, Lee has the bearing of a leader. He’s very skinny, and speed is implied in the fluidity of his movements at the line. He talks to his teammates, motions them to their proper positions, and seems totally in command of his offensive unit. There’s also a slight but detectable swagger, the sign of a man who buzzes with the act of performing. Watching him line up behind the center, under the bright lights, the possibilities seemed endless.

But the Hillside offense was measured. They operated with patience, determined not to rely on their genius at every juncture. Coach King pounded the ball into the Northern middle with Jamal Williams, a strong player in his own right. Draw after draw was called, designed to weaken the interior and sucker the defense in. The knockout punch was always available, but they were content to bide their time, and Williams amassed a workmanlike 105 yards on 17 carries.

I asked a Northern fan on the sideline whether he thought Hillside had a chance to win the state title. “No,” he said. “They’re good, don’t get me wrong. But they’ll get beat by some team from Raleigh who shouldn’t beat them. They don’t have the discipline.”

Some evidence bears this out. After Lee’s first score, a turnover gave Northern the ball at the 50. They were able to march all the way to the 19 on penalties alone, most of them defensive offside calls drawn by a varied cadence.

And then there’s the mystery of the Southern game. Earlier in the season, Hillside played their city rival, Durham Southern. One team was 5-0. One team was 0-5. But Vad Lee was held to 12 yards rushing, and Hillside, playing on their home field, found itself in a dogfight. With 20 seconds left in the game, Southern ran a halfback pass for a touchdown, pulling to within 13-12. Instead of kicking, they decided to go for two points and a road win. But Hillside’s Treshawn Council sacked the Southern quarterback on the try, and Vad Lee recovered the ensuing onside kick to secure the win.

Still, how could a game like that happen to one of the best teams in the state?

The Surge

In any case, despite the sloppy play, the season finale would not follow a similar script. After reaching the 19, Northern fumbled the ball away. On the next play from scrimmage, Vad Lee dropped back to pass. Again he found his receivers covered, but this time there was a seam up the middle. He took the opening in a burst, gliding past defenders as he navigated first the line and then the secondary. The speed astounded fans on both sides, and the familiar swell of recognition rose in contradictory rhythm; fear in the Northern stands, jubilation for Hillside.

Seventy-four yards later, a defensive back who should have had a perfect angle somewhere around the 15, in a fair world, dove for Lee’s shoes and brought him down inside the 5. On the next play, Lee tried the middle again and found the end zone.

The Noise

It was 19-0 by halftime. Not insurmountable, but nearly so considering Northern’s lack of offensive inspiration. The Knights had nothing for the Hillside defense. Their starting quarterback, sophomore Charah Wheeler, was not a natural passer, and Hillside incorporated this knowledge into their game plan. By stuffing the line with a tight 4-3 defense, they took away the inside running game and forced Wheeler to make plays with his arm. It wasn’t happening for the sophomore, and he ended the day seven completions in 28 attempts for only 109 yards.

As the Hornets came out of the locker room for the second half, one of their assistant coaches tried to ward off complacency. “On the hop, let’s go, let’s go! Only the mailman walks, and you ain’t delivering mail.”

In the stands, the Hillside drumming corps kept up a steady rhythm while their team was on defense. The insistent, martial beats seemed designed to break the spirits of the enemy, to create an atmosphere where the only escape was surrender. The Northern failure was encouraged and described by these drums, and they couldn’t outlast the noise.

The Whole Package

Although he is clearly blessed with a strong arm, the knock on Vad Lee before his junior season was that he couldn’t pass accurately or consistently. It became his personal mission to work on this perceived weakness, and on Friday night, two years later, there was no evidence of anything but excellence. His passes were tight, pinpoint spirals, and because Coach King likes to get him outside the pocket to create scrambling possibilities, he threw most of them on the run.

The one poor pass I saw came in the third quarter, by which point I’d moved to the Hillside sideline. Lee had a receiver streaking toward the end zone, but he underthrew him badly. The ball should have been picked off, but the Northern defender dropped it. Disgusted, he punched the ground in frustration, realizing that missed opportunities could be devastating.

He was right. The play that happened next wasn’t as spectacular as Lee’s first touchdown run, but from a perspective of evaluating a quarterback, it was far more impressive. Rolling right, Lee couldn’t see an opening. He tucked the ball and began to run for the sideline, dodging defenders all the way. But his eyes stayed downfield, and at the last moment, he took advantage of a small pocket in the defense, stepped up, and fired a laser over the defensive backs. Devondray Watson, one of the shortest men on the field, was on a crossing route, and the ball hit him in stride in the back of the end zone.

It was a profoundly skillful play on Lee’s part, showcasing agility, speed, composure, creativity, and arm strength. He was deft and aggressive at once. It clarified that he’s more than just a fast athlete chosen to play a certain position so he can touch the ball every play. Vad Lee is a legitimate quarterback.

He ran to the end zone to celebrate, and he lifted Watson and carried him off the field amid a convoy of ecstatic teammates. They were yelling something at their quarterback, a near-chant that sounded like the last name of former Duke star Shane Battier. “Battier!” they shouted, over and over. I wondered what they meant.

The Name

The mystery was solved by an older man who managed the footballs on the sideline, always on call in case an official needed a new one. He had told me earlier that he would be Hillside’s head coach in five years (“you think I throw the balls in for nothing?”) and that, “when a man been good all his life and does some dirt, God will revere you.”

In the fourth quarter, I asked him where the name ‘Vad’ came from. He looked at me like I was crazy or stupid. “Lavaedeay,” he said.

What?

“That’s his name.”

And it’s true. His full name is Lavaedeay Lee, pronounced la-VAD-ee-ay. I later learned from a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the name had no special meaning or family significance. “Nah,” Lee told the AJC, “it was just my mama putting some letters together and coming up with Lavaedeay.”

It’s such a great name, with that euphonious, flowing sound. I’d like to tell him to use it even if it’s tough for others to pronounce.

“How do you spell it?” I asked the man.

Shit, I don’t know,” he answered.

Playoffs

By the fourth quarter, it was a laugher. Hillside had rolled to a 31-6 lead, and would go on to win 38-6. Lee and the rest of the starters were out. The conference championship, the undefeated season, and homefield advantage in the playoffs were all secure. On the sidelines, Coach King and the rest of his staff high-fived and hugged their players.

The state playoff brackets were released the next afternoon. Hillside (11-0) will play Southeast Guilford (a 6-5 team from Greensboro) in Durham on Friday night. Despite the discrepancy in records, the game could be closer than anticipated due to the tougher competition Guilford faces during the season. Still, Hillside will be the clear favorite to advance to the 4A Sweet 16. If they make the Elite 8, they could face Northern again.

The First Words

Before I left Friday’s game, I found myself standing next to Vad Lee on the sideline while Hillside played defense. There was nobody else around. I stole a couple glances and decided that he looked a bit like the character Smash Williams on Friday Night Lights. He has the same face, the same grin, and the same easygoing personality tinged with confidence and ego.

I asked him two questions. “How about that pass, Vad?” I didn’t have to tell him I meant the touchdown strike to Watson.

“Oh yeah,” he said, shaking his head and smiling, enjoying the memory. “One of my best passes.”

And the second: “You’ve got to tell me, what was it like when you were mid-air for that first touchdown?”

I’m not sure what I expected him to say to that strange question, what profound insight he might have to offer. I’m not even sure why I asked, other than a vague desire to understand exactly what someone feels in those unknowable moments.

But his response was perfect:

“I wasn’t even thinking.”

Shane Ryan, a first-year graduate student from Saranac Lake, N.Y., is a multimedia journalist for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.