As a fourth-grader, Dillon Burdette was too big to play football with children his own age. Playing with sixth- and seventh-graders wasn't easy for him.
"They would simply pound on me and pound on me," said the now all-conference Hickory Ridge linebacker.
"I would be crying doing some of the drills. It sounds kind of funny, but making it through that year built up my mental toughness."
Burdette has come a long way; he's now the one pounding his competitors while leading a talented Hickory Ridge defense.
The 6-foot-3, 220 pounder kicked off the season with a career high 17 tackles - six of which were for a loss - in the Ragin' Bulls' 24-12 loss to Carson.
He followed that performance during Friday's 48-14 loss to Marvin Ridge with 11 tackles, including six for a loss and two forced fumbles.
Hickory Ridge coach Marty Paxton said Burdette means a lot to his team.
"He makes us tick on defense," he said. "He not only makes plays defensively, but also on special teams - his motor doesn't stop."
As a defensive end last season, Burdette had an outstanding season, recording 87 tackles, including 32 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks, as well as blocking three kicks and forcing a fumble.
He was named all-South Piedmont Conference despite not playing his natural position.
"It was a major adjustment for me last year," said Burdette. "The first few games, I was having trouble picking up on it, but as soon as I did I started playing well."
Although the senior has played each of the front seven defensive positions throughout his playing days - having played defensive tackle his freshman year - he enjoys the outside linebacker role the most.
"You get to be more involved," said Burdette, one of four captains for the Bulls. "Linebackers make the most tackles naturally, and I enjoy making tackles."
Paxton said that one of the reasons Burdette has flourished the last couple of seasons is because he's a smart player.
"He can decipher what other teams may run by their formations," said Paxton. "He does a lot of studying before each game."
But the biggest factors for Burdette's success has been the dedication he's put into improving - whether that is spending time in the weight room or conditioning.
"When he first got here, he might have been one of our slowest and weakest kids," said Paxton. "Now you can see a 180-degree difference. That shows a lot about his work ethic and how important it is to him being the best."
Burdette said that during his sophomore year, he started to focus on improving himself. That's when he developed a new philosophy.
"The hardest workers sometimes will beat out the more naturally talented," he said. "I take a lot of pride in hard work."
This past offseason, Burdette trained five days a week trying to become the strongest player on the football field this fall. He said he even worked out before basketball practices and home games last winter, when he played power forward for Hickory Ridge.
The 17-year-old attended a dozen college football camps this summer - going everywhere from N.C. State and Clemson to Kentucky and Vanderbilt - to gauge interest.
"I wanted to go out there and compete to see what kind of skill level I'm going against," said Burdette, whose main goal is to earn a college scholarship.
Burdette said he's still pondering about where he wants to play in college. He said Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina are the closest ones to offering, but Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, N.C. State, North Carolina, Vanderbilt and Virginia are all considering him and have requested senior film.
That's a big reason why Burdette wants to have an even better season than last year's. He's back at outside linebacker after the Ragin' Bulls shifted from a 5-3 to a 3-5 formation trying to make up for defensive talent lost to graduation. Burdette might still see some time on the defensive line and could even play a few downs on the offensive line, which is the reason his number was switched from 41 to 50 prior to this season.
Burdette has taken even more responsibility on the team, becoming the Bulls' punter this season. He's averaging above 29 yards per attempt, including 46- and 40-yarders so far this season.
Burdette and his Ragin' Bulls embark on their quest for an SPC title when they kick off the conference season against Central Cabarrus on Friday.
"I want to win that conference championship," he said. "We have a strong feeling about that. We feel very confident in ourselves. This is a special team."
Burdette, who also hopes his team makes it far into the playoff, said his personal goal is to be the conference defensive player of the year.
"I just want to be the best player I can be."