It’s a moment I still vividly recall.
Facing a 4th-and-2 inside the Norwalk 30 with a 21-14 lead early in the fourth quarter of a Week 8 game in 2011, Bellevue quarterback Jalen Santoro took the snap and darted to his left.
With two defenders closing in on him that each weighed more than 250 pounds, Santoro lowered his shoulder and banged his 155-pound frame through both players for the first down. As he lie on the ground in anguish, one of his teammates peeled him off the ground.
Santoro stood up, with his right shoulder slumping downward with no feeling. His AC joint was strained,essentially a separated shoulder. All he did was look to Bellevue coach Ed Nasonti for the next play.
He wasn’t coming out, and finished the game handing off the ball with his opposite hand, because he couldn’t raise his throwing arm above his head.
Bellevue went on to score again and win that game, 28-14. It made the playoffs and hosted a first round game where the Redmen were eliminated handily by Elida.
A year later, Santoro and almost an entirely new group of linemen in front of him have plowed their way to a 12-1 record and a spot in Saturday’s Division III state semifinals.
For a third time, Bellevue is back in the Final Four, a place where talk becomes very real about the possibilities of reaching the nostalgic grounds of Massillon and Canton in Stark County.
And while it is the eye-popping numbers of total offense that garner attention, or the accolades of being named Northwest District Player of the Year, and likely first team All-Ohio next week, something else has always jumped out at me about Santoro.
He never stops. And at 6-foot, 155 pounds, he is one of the toughest players I have ever watched play in 24 years of attending area high school football games.
The times are countless it looked like he was going to be stopped for a loss, only to churn forward and get positive yardage. Perhaps even more impressive, is the opposition knows what Bellevue is going to do.
Every single team keys on him, knowing if they can slow him down, they are going to be in position to win. Yet when he takes the ball, he still doesn’t get stopped. He takes that small frame, and rather than let his size get in the way, usually ends up the one delivering some of the contact.
It really doesn’t make much sense. When you stop and think about the size advantage Santoro gives up, and his ability to just methodically wear a team down, it’s hard believe it continues to happen. Yet week after week, it does.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Bellevue has been in several big games over the past few seasons, and each time when doing a preview story leading up to a key game, the opposing coach always says the same thing.
Whether it’s Marc Gibson at Clyde, Jason Ziegler at Perkins, Mike Franklin at Sandusky, Norwalk’s Chris MacFarland and Columbian’s Brian Colatruglio, they all essentially said the same thing.
Santoro was called the ultimate competitor, a kid who simply wills his team to victory. He takes hit after hit, and gets up every time and keeps coming back for more. They’ve all seen it first hand, some probably more than they had ever hoped to see.
In last week’s win over Napoleon, from the 8:10 mark of the third quarter through the rest of the game, Santoro carried the ball on every single play for Bellevue. In that span, Santoro and the Redmen used up 13:09 of the final 20:10 of the game.
He carried 26 consecutive times for 141 yards and moved the chains seven times to close out a regional championship. Again, this isn’t some bruising fullback we’re talking about.
You can point back to his 176 rushing yards and the game-winning touchdown vs. an Elida defense in the first round that was allowing 50 yards rushing per game, and no 100-yard rushers.
And while much of the attention will be forever debated and talked about with regards to how Bellevue got the ball back with under 30 seconds to go in the second round vs. Perkins, the fact remains Santoro and the Redmen were given second life, and took full advantage.
A 4-play, 42-yard drive later, Santoro scrambled out of a sack and with a simple flick of the wrist on the run, threw the game-winning touchdown to Trent Stamm with no time on the clock.
Moments like that are why Nasonti, who has been associated with the program for 32 years, including the last 22 as a head coach, puts Santoro on a short list of former Redmen greats.
On Saturday, Bellevue faces a lethal Dayton Thurgood Marshall that has put up video game numbers by its own right.
It’s a fair argument if someone were to say Bellevue is the underdog. Completely fair, really.
But at this point, does anyone want to bet against Santoro and his supporting cast to somehow find a way to get to Canton?
Speaking of short lists, I’m guessing that list would be a fairly short one.
No matter how that game turns out, Santoro’s performance is one that will stand the test of time.
Every once in a while a player comes around whose value transcends his numbers. Santoro’s ability to elevate an entire team is what sets him apart.
He has an extra heartbeat that you and I don’t have. You can’t teach or coach that.
And the best part about that extra heartbeat is, he can motivate others to have it too. We’ve seen that three times already in the playoffs.
Win or lose, it’s safe to assume we’re going to see it again Saturday.
Undersized Santoro continues to defy the odds
It’s a moment I still vividly recall.