The Eastside football team got more than what it bargained for during its season-ending football banquet last week.
In addition to the typical passing out of awards, accolades and recognition, the 2016 Eastside squad was treated to a visit from New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
Rankins, a 2012 Eastside graduate and former Louisville standout, came by to talk with the Eagles while also enjoying the distinction of having his high school jersey retired.
And somehow, Eastside coach Troy Hoff was able to keep it all a secret from his guys.
“We had started the conversation about it and spent some time with it in the summer, and said that we’d keep in contact about it through the season,” Hoff said. “It was a deal where we didn’t want it to interfere with his season with the Saints, and we wanted to keep it under wraps. There was quite a bit of buzz from our players once they saw who it was.”
Rankins wrapped up his rookie season with the Saints on Jan. 1 with a loss to the Atlanta Falcons during the last regular season game in the Georgia Dome. After his year was over, and after knowing the defensive linemen was still interested in stopping by, Hoff knew it would be the perfect way to bring closure to a solid 2016 season.
“What better guy to come back and speak into these kids than someone who walked in his shoes,” Hoff said. “This is home for Sheldon. He started here and he knows this area. Not a lot of kids were old enough to really know his story and to know the kind of perseverance and work ethic he met adversity with.”
Rankins suffered a broken leg during his senior year at Eastside during what Hoff called “a pivotal recruiting time,” and incurred a similarly devastating injury several years later.
A consensus three-star prospect coming out of high school, Rankins noted in an earlier interview with The Covington News after his game against the Falcons, that many teams lost interest in him after his high school injury — a fact corroborated by Hoff.
“A lot of schools reaching out to him weren’t returning calls anymore after that,” Hoff said. “But he stayed at it, and Louisville stayed interested and the rest is history.”
Rankins graduated Louisville with a 3.0-plus grade point average while majoring in exercise science and kinesiology. The 6-foot-2, 303 pounder finished his first season as a pro with 20 tackles, including 15 solo stops, four sacks and a forced fumble. He did this in just nine full games.
And while the most recent Eastside squad was enamored with being in the presence of an accomplished professional athlete, Hoff said it was the classroom stuff and other intangibles about Rankins that he wanted his young guys to pay close attention to.
“His work in the classroom and getting his degree, we really wanted him to hit that point home to these guys,” Hoff said. “I wanted these guys to hear him talk about how he played in the Senior Bowl game, knowing he was going to get drafted and still finished his coursework and graduated. I wanted them to hear him talk about overcoming adversity.”
Rankins also shared about the importance of keeping priorities in line and the necessity of keeping the right people around you and making good decisions.
“From a character standpoint, just the way Sheldon carries himself — that’s why the NFL executives loved him so much,” Hoff said.
But more than anything, the second year Eastside head coach said he hoped that Rankins’ presence will reinforce to his players that lofty goals and great accomplishments are just as possible for them as with anyone else.
“I think, when you look at Sheldon, and some of the other NFL players that come from our area, it all sends a great message to our kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can make it,” Hoff said. “If you’re willing to overcome the adversity that will come to get where a guy like Sheldon is. If you’re disciplined and make good choices, at the end of the day, you can go places. The best message any of our local pro guys can send is that it wasn’t easy, but it’s definitely possible.”