He isn’t the biggest running back around.
And Mario Cherry isn’t the fastest tailback, either.
However, there weren’t many running backs more productive than the Thomasville senior, who helped the Bulldogs rebound from a dismal 3-7 season in 2012 with an 8-4 campaign in 2013.
“As a running back, rule No. 1 is don’t get tackled by the first man and don’t let one man tackle you,” said Cherry, the 2013 Times-Enterprise All-Area Offensive Player of the Year. “I just felt like if I got tackled by the first man, I just had to do better the next time.”
Cherry, a 5-foot-9, 190-pounder, didn’t go down on first contact very often, especially as the season wore on and Thomasville got more comfortable in new coach Leroy Ryals’ system. It was a pro-style, balanced attack that definitely suited Cherry well.
After two seasons of battling injuries, Cherry rushed for 802 yards a year ago. That was just an appetizer for what would follow his senior season. In doubling his output of a year earlier with 1,604 yards and 21 touchdowns on 251 carries, Cherry topped 200 yards three times and rushed for at least 160 yards five times. If you take his best four games of the year — Westside-Augusta (245 yards), Cook (218), Lamar County (215) and Early County (162) — he already surpassed his junior total.
“I worked harder in the offseason,” Cherry said. “I just made up my mind that this year was going to be better, regardless of anything.”
It definitely was. It was almost historic. His season total left him 86 yards shy of the single-season rushing record at Thomasville, a storied program that celebrated its 100th season of football this year. That record-holder with 1,690 yards? William Andrews, arguably the best Bulldog of them all. His 245 yards on 14 carries in Thomasville’s 45-20 win against Westside-Augusta in the first round of the playoffs was just 39 yards shy of Jeffery Dyson’s single-game record set in 2010.
“He accomplished a lot this year and he helped his team out a lot,” said Thomas County Central quarterback Adam Choice, a two-time All-Area Offensive Player of the Year winner. “You couldn’t ask anything more of a senior leader like him.
“He’s a great guy and I salute him for everything he’s done. His numbers this year were amazing. He played great ball this year, and he carried his team and took them as far as he could.”
So how was Cherry, who hopes to continue his career in college although he hasn’t attracted a lot of attention, able to put together a season that challenged the Thomasville record books despite rarely being the best athlete on the field? Ryals said his back made up for his lack of size and top-end footspeed in countless other ways.
“He does possess a couple things that people don’t realize,” he noted. “He has great vision. He has great change of direction, has great feet and change of direction, can put his foot in the ground and move. And if you can do that, you can make people miss. And I don’t understand people always talking about him not having breakaway speed. He got loose against Lamar and Lamar has a couple of cats that can run. So on one hand, he really worked hard on his top-end speed and he’s done a much better job, he ran track for us last year and that helped him out a little bit. But in football, most average high school runs if it’s a long run, is going to be 40 to 50 yards. So you don’t have to be a 10.5 100-yard guy to be a great tailback.
“And that’s what he has done. He makes people miss and he’s also done a great job of studying the game. We try to teach our guys the blocking schemes and how it should work out, which way we’re going to try to block the guy and how we’re going to make it fit. And he did a great job of studying that and knowing where his blocks we’re going to come from. So that makes you a little quicker, too.”
Still perhaps Cherry’s best attribute as a running back may have been his heart. It usually was what separated him and that first would-be tackler.
“I felt like I just owed it back to the community to play harder this year than last year,” Cherry said. “Coming out to practice and to games, just trying to show people that I was capable of making plays when they were needed to be made to help my team win the game.”
Added Ryals: “He refused to go down and he’s a lot stronger than people realize too. You go down to the weight room, you realize that man, this kid is pretty strong.
“So he’s strong and the big thing is, he had a strong will. When you have a strong will, are intelligent and have a good work ethic, anything can happen.”