When Southern Nash football coach Brian Foster first introduced Cameron Gardner to assistant coach Brian Batchelor, he did so under the lofty expectation that Gardner would be the best offensive lineman Batchelor would ever coach.
Standing in the Southern Nash High School weight room, Batchelor had a few questions for the then 6-foot-4 eighth-grader, who was 310 pounds of mostly baby fat.
Are you excited about playing football? Are you playing any sports now? What has been your favorite sport before? Each question was met with shy nods and one-word mutters.
Have you ever played any sports?
“T-Ball,” Gardner finally answered.
Those were the first words Batchelor ever heard from Gardner, but Foster’s first words were prophetic.
“He’s the best offensive lineman we’ve had that projects to the next level,” Batchelor said.
That’s exactly where Gardner is headed after officially signing with Wake Forest on Wednesday.
“I started out, and I wasn’t much of anything, just a big, fat kid,” Gardner said. “The coaches, the teammates that I had that have already graduated, they pushed me. ... I just appreciate everything.”
Gardner, now a 6-foot-7, 280-pound offensive tackle who has to sit in the back of every class, could only bench press 135 pounds three times when he first started weightlifting as a freshman.
Six months later, he could rep the same weight 28 times.
“I got in the weight room, and it just changes how you think,” said Gardner, who couldn’t jump rope as a freshman. “You think you can’t do something, but it makes you want to get better.”
Now, Gardner can sit on the ground with his legs extended outward and touch his nose to the ground.
That’s exactly what makes him different than almost any other Southern Nash offensive lineman to walk through the school’s hallways, other than the fact that he stands a full head above any other student.
Gardner isn’t a mauling Southern Nash offensive lineman, although he can do that. At his base level, Gardner is a pass-blocking tackle.
“He’ll thrive by making that change,” said Batchelor, who played college football at William & Mary after graduating from Southern Nash in the late ’90s. “It will athletically suit him more to play in a two-point stance. ... He’s so athletic. He can just move to be a big guy.”
Gardner received interest from East Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech before choosing between Wake Forest and Duke. He wanted a school that would challenge him academically, and he found Wake Forest to be familiar, too.
“The atmosphere at Wake, it was kind of like Southern Nash,” said Gardner, who is thinking about majoring in business. “Everybody kind of knew each other. You get along with each other. ... It just has more of that feel.”
Gardner always has been shy and still looks down when he speaks to people – although its more of a physical requirement.
He’s no longer the pudgy kid with promise.
He’s a grown man with a scholarship.
“He learned that when he got on the football field, he could go,” Batchelor said. “When he gets on the football field, he does work.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org