Denzel Heath loves to play football. The Hopewell running back and linebacker has been playing nearly all his life.
This season, Heath, 17, who began playing at 5, is coming into his own as a key player on both sides of the ball for the Titans (6-4, 3-3 in the I-Meck).
"I love football like a kid loves cake," said the junior. "I can't get enough of it. I'm either watching football, playing it, practicing or even playing it on a video game. I'm almost always playing or thinking about football."
Heath, a 5-foot-11, 185 pounder, is beginning to show what he can do on the field after fighting his way up the depth chart despite injuries most of his sophomore year.
This year, Heath had rushed for 423 yards and six touchdowns going into Friday's game against Vance, as the change-of-pace back to senior running back Dondre Lewis-Freeman.
On defense, Heath is one of Hopewell's leading tacklers - with 36 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble - despite only playing two-thirds of the snaps, to keep him fresh for offense.
Heath is an aggressive player. "He is not afraid of contact, I can tell you that," said Hopewell's coach, Chris Rust. "He doesn't shy away from hits, ever. Sometimes I wish he would try to avoid people a little bit more, but that is the way he plays."
Heath learned his aggressive style from a family tradition of playing sports at a high level. Heath's father, Lee, played Minor League Baseball in the Atlanta Braves' organization as an outfielder for eight years (1988-1996) while his uncle, Rodney, played cornerback for three seasons in the NFL as a Cincinnati Bengal.
Through his hard work in the weight room and experience, Heath has transformed into a hitting machine.
"When I run the ball, whoever gets in my way is going to get run over," said Heath. "I want them to be afraid of me or at least think twice about wanting to tackle me. At linebacker, I play the same way, I'm looking to hit someone as hard as I can on every play. I want those running backs to be tip-toeing around, scared."
But Heath lets his actions speak for themselves, as he is quiet, mild-mannered player on and off the field.
Heath said he likes to compete so much, that he and Lewis-Freeman (827 yards rushing) have a contest to see who can get the most rushing yards and the most touchdowns in each game.
Heath has come out on top only twice this season, with a 137-yard, two touchdown-explosion against Hough, followed by 116 rushing yards in a 30-27 overtime upset of West Charlotte.
While Heath may end on the short end of that teammate rivalry, it is only a matter of time until Heath will end being "the man" in 2011.
"It's nice to have two running backs with two different styles that can both be effective," said Rust. "They both want the ball as much as we can give it to them."
As the season progresses, Rust has found even more ways to get Heath involved, having him line up anywhere from running back, fullback, linebacker and even quarterback, where he is sometimes featured in the "wildcat" formation.
Heath says he will do anything to win, and play any position, especially this week, as Hopewell finishes its regular season against North Meck. Then Heath and company hope to make some noise in the 4A playoffs.
"We've kind of been up and down this year," said Heath. "But I think we have the talent and the team to play with just about anyone, but we have to go out and prove it."
That is not good news for anyone who gets in Heath's way.