Rebels' Ward earns ATG captain honor

Douglas Fritz • Updated Nov 22, 2017 at 6:08 PM

What earns a player a spot on the All-Tough Guy team?

How about twice coming back from season-ending leg injuries only to have one of the most productive seasons of any quarterback in Northeast Tennessee?

Just a spot on the team isn’t good enough for that determination and courage. That’s why Sullivan South quarterback Ethan Ward was selected Wednesday as the All-Tough Guy player of the year.

The senior earned his award — and honorary nickname, “Seal Team Rebel” — after putting the injuries behind him and accounting for over 2,500 yards of offense and 39 total touchdowns while helping his team reach the Class 4A playoffs.

Ward was the perfect picture of grit, determination, and willingness to go beyond the call of duty that are trademarks of the ATG team.

Joining Ward atop the list of this year’s honorees was Dobyns-Bennett’s Graham Clark. He was chosen as the All-Tough Guy coach after leading the Indians through the maze of the one of the most difficult schedules in the state, and coming out as the Region 1-6A champion, before losing by just six points in a bid to reach the Class 6A quarterfinals.

Here’s a look at the rest of the squad with their honorary nicknames:

Corey Russell, Elizabethton

“Pit Bull”

Playing most of the season with a nagging ankle injury, the junior running back’s statistics didn’t reflect his pain. He gritted out 1,344 total yards and 19 touchdowns, and also finished with 1,908 all-purpose yards.

Arthur James, Science Hill

“Lion’s Heart”

Listed at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, the senior linebacker was far and away the Hilltoppers’ leading tackler and the heart and soul of the defensive unit for a team that reached the Class 6A playoffs.

Austin Hall, Cloudland

“The Postman”

Lacking great size for trench work, the 5-10, 210-pound senior lineman played pretty much every down on both sides of the ball. He was no stranger to adversity this season, but never let up on his appointed rounds.

Gavin Hardin, Hampton

“Beware of Dog”

He was in the mix throughout the season for the Bulldogs, working behind the scenes in the trenches as a tight end. He also created toughness on the defensive side of the ball at middle linebacker.

Drew Thompson, Daniel Boone

“Pain Blocker”

Thompson produced results on the offensive and defensive lines that led him to postseason Region 1-5A honors. And the senior got the job done despite a high ankle sprain that nagged him throughout the entire season.

Tyler Norris, Johnson County

“Longhorn Saddle”

When the Longhorns needed stops this season, they often counted on the bare-knuckles toughness of Norris. The junior was one of the team’s top tacklers and a standout at linebacker.

Kaleb Bare, Sullivan East

“Patriot Missile”

It was an uphill battle for parts of the season for the Patriots, but the player they counted on the most was their gut-level tough senior defensive end, linebacker and tight end — who produced many big plays.

Eli Fleenor, Happy Valley


Physicality was the calling card for Fleenor, and the senior offensive lineman and defensive end was in the middle of the Warriors’ success from game one through the second round of the Class 2A playoffs.

Bryson Street, Unaka

“Eye of the Tiger”

His shoulder was hurting, but he kept tackling. His shoulder kept hurting. He kept tackling. Finally the season ended and the junior underwent surgery — just don’t expect that to keep him from tackling in the future.

Michael Smith, Unicoi County

“Backfield Hunter”

To get to the type of numbers Smith racked up, it takes a few things: a nose for the ball, mental toughness, physical toughness and determination. The senior linebacker had them all.

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