Eric Stokes was hobbled and hurting. He definitely wasn’t at 100 percent speed.
And this year’s Eastside boys track team wasn’t quite the same as last year’s senior-laden bunch that literally ran away with the Class AAAA state championship last week.
This year, the Eagles weren’t looking for extra points to gain an edge on an overall state crown. They were out of that race. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something for Stokes to run for.
The 4x100 relay was still a prize to be had. And although Eastside boys track coach Frankie Iverson did his best to preserve Stokes’ football future and keep him from further injury, he ended up losing a battle to his sprinting star that actually caused him to win another state title.
That’s part of how the Eastside boys 4x100 relay team ran away from contending Luella to capture the Class AAAA state title in the event. And looking back on it, Iverson said he was mesmerized at the champion’s heart his team – particularly Stokes – showed him helping them to the win.
“It speaks volumes of his competitive spirit,” Iverson said. “Because Eric wants to compete in everything he’s been placed in. We almost argued a bit on finals day, about him even finishing the day. I knew he wanted to run the 100 meters, and once that race was over, I wanted to shut him down for the day.”
Stokes placed second in the 100, despite his obvious injury. He ended up finishing eighth in the 200 because of a promise that he made to his coach.
“I told him, ‘Eric, I don’t want you to make this worse,’” Iverson said. “And he said, ‘It’ll be fine. Just let me finish it.’ I told him to promise me that if he felt anything in that leg, to just shut it down. So that’s why he came in eighth.”
Stokes doesn’t do much talking to media these days. Iverson said it’s nothing personal, though.
“He just doesn’t like to talk about himself a whole lot,” he said. “He’s a very talented kid, but he’s definitely humble. He thinks more of his teammates than he does himself.”
And in a word, that’s why he ran. His teammates. The team. It was the final hurrah in a storied track and field career that has seen him run times that rank among the fastest of any high school sprinter in the nation. And stokes knew he wasn’t going to be breaking any sound barriers on this last go-round. But it wasn’t about that.
“He told me, ‘This is the last race of my career, Coach, and I’m gonna run it,’” Iverson said, regarding the 4x100 relay.
He ran the anchor leg, with the thought that Iverson may need him to help catch whoever was in front. But that wasn’t necessary. Thanks to strong starts by Anthony Thomas and freshman Jovan King, and a solid, sustaining performance from freshman Matthew Brown, by the time Brown put the baton into Stokes’ hands – something Brown’s been doing since he and Stokes were freshmen – the Eagles were maintaining a decent lead, and Stokes had enough juice in him to close it out.
“It really depended upon whether we could keep it close,” Iverson said. “We’d seen Luella run at regions as well as sectionals, and we knew if we could possibly get it close enough, Eric could run a guy down if need be. But we were in a great position. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys.”
Thomas’ story is particularly interesting. Earlier in the season, Thomas went out and broke the Eastside school record for the 1600 meter run. And although, as a distance runner, he seemed an unlikely fit to a championship 4x100 team, Iverson and his staff had a gut feeling that it could work.
“Anthony’s an 800 guy,” Iverson said. “It’s a funny story. He kept getting faster throughout the year. And when he got 50 points in the 400, me and my coaches looked at each other and said that you’ve gotta be pretty fast to do that. So I asked what they thought about him running the four-by-one, and we all said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Iverson said he’s pleased with how his guys finished this year, and is excited about what’s returning.
“Last year, we just had a different kind of team,” he said. “And there were some guys you just didn’t know were gonna be as good as they were. We had some luck, which you need to win a state championship. But these guys had a great competitive spirit this year. And we’ve got some young guys like Jovan returning. I think we’re going to be in good shape.”