Marcus Graham knew he was taking on a major challenge as the East Lincoln starting quarterback this season.
The East Lincoln sophomore was not only taking over the vaunted, Mustang offense, but was also following All-American, quarterback, Chazz Surratt (Parade All-American national player of the year), who rewrote the state record books, passing for a N.C. record 16,593 yards and accounting for another state record, 229 touchdowns (passing/running). Surratt is now playing at the University of North Carolina.
To further complicate things, Graham would also be without Chazz’ younger brother, Sage Surratt, one of the states’ top wide receivers, who announced he was transferring to rival Lincolnton in June. Sage Surratt now owns the state record for career catches, yards and touchdowns receiving.
While some players would have been overwhelmed by the adversity before the season even started, Graham embraced it — the same way he had last year as a freshman when he was thrust into the starting role, when Chazz Surratt went down with an injury — in second round of the 2AA playoff game against Wilkes Central.
It’s humbling to go from being a kid in the stands watching them to be one of the guys (on team) and the starting quarterback. I never take it for granted.
Last November, Graham led East Lincoln to a win over Wilkes Central (47-6), East Burke (35-14) before the season came to an end in the 2AA state semifinals at Monroe (46-6 loss).
“I knew it was going to be tough to take over as the East Lincoln starting quarterback, especially coming after Chazz, who set the standard here,” said Graham, who grew up in Lincoln County, dreaming of being the East Lincoln quarterback. “But I’ve just tried to shut out all the pressure and focus on playing football. But, you do hear all the talk before the season about losing this guy and that guy. This team, including myself, wanted to come in and prove that we could play and be successful and try to keep East Lincoln football at the same standard as it has been.”
Graham and company got off to a tough start in the season opener as two quick turnovers put the Mustangs in a 13-0 hole against Hunter Huss after one quarter.
But instead panicking, East Lincoln found a way to win 14-13 with Graham passing for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
“All of the sudden, we were down 13-0 (against Hunter Huss) and it sort of hit us, because in practice you can’t really deal with those situations,” Graham said. “We had two choices, we could shut down or keep fighting. We kept fighting and found a way to win and that was big for this team.”
East Lincoln football coach, Mike Byus, agreed.
“This (East Lincoln) has been overcoming adversity since before the season even started,” said Byus, in 12th year as the East Lincoln football coach. “But this team showed how tough it could right away. It’s been a microcosm of our season all year. These kids (East Lincoln) have fought and scratched for everything they’ve accomplished.”
One week later, Graham and senior wide receiver, Cameron Dollar, put on a record-breaking show in a 69-0 win over Christ the King.
Graham went 9-for-10 for 300 yards and seven touchdown passes, with all nine passes and seven touchdowns going to Dollar (No. 2 in the nation all-time, No. 1 in state all-time) in the first half.
The East Lincoln offense has been rolling ever since week two (against Christ the King), averaging 42.8 points per game, with a 10-2 record in that span. The only losses came in tight games — including a 42-35 loss against Lincolnton (Sept. 30) and a 42-32 defeat at West Caldwell (Oct. 21), both of which Coach Byus admits, “they should have won.”
Graham has played a huge role, passing for 1,966 yards and 26 touchdowns, while rushing for 945 yards and 16 more scores.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound sophomore, who doesn’t turn 16 until January, is accounting for an average of 224 yards and three touchdowns per game.
However, while Graham has played a big role for this East Lincoln team (11-2), he is quick to deflect the credit to his teammates.
Graham has a lot of weapons at his disposal from running backs, Trevor Childers (865 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns) and Carson Jones to wideouts, Cameron Dollar (54 catches for 1,266 yards and 14 touchdowns) to Sydney Dollar (Cam’s younger brother).
Graham has also benefited from an experienced offensive line led by seniors, Cade Larson, Ballard Hoyle, Jonathon Parks and A.J. Presley to juniors, Devan Rigdon and Gage Welborn.
The Mustang defense has also been stout, allowing only 17 points per contest, led by seniors, Childers (119 tackles), Nate Cureton (seven interceptions), Dalton Salerno (123 tackles) and junior, Ryan Matz (13 sacks).
“I can’t say enough about guys like Cam (Dollar), Trevor (Childers), our offensive line and our defense, Graham said. “They make it a lot easier to be the quarterback, because I know I can rely on them all. All I have to do is play my role.”
“This team has allowed him (Marcus) to not put pressure on himself to be anything other than Marcus Graham, sophomore quarterback,” Byus said. “Football is the ultimate game. You can accomplish a lot when nobody cares who gets the credit. That’s the team we have here this season.”
East Lincoln is back in the 2AA state quarterfinals again at Monroe Friday night (Dec. 2) for the fifth straight season, and eighth time in the last 12 seasons, according to Byus.
While Graham still remembers the 46-6 loss to the defending state champion, Monroe team vividly, he is eager for the rematch.
“It’s exciting to get another shot at playing Monroe and try to beat a great team like that,” Graham said. “We’ve had that bad taste in our mouths (loss to Monroe) since last season.”
No matter how East Lincoln’s season ends, Graham says he is living out a dream as the Mustangs’ quarterback and wants to make the most of every game.
“I’m trying to be my own person, my own quarterback,” Graham said. “But to have watched a lot of the guys that came before at East Lincoln, it’s humbling to go from being a kid in the stands watching them to be one of the guys (on team) and the starting quarterback. I never take it for granted.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.