When Eric Stokes first showed up on the Eastside High football sidelines, he might not have stayed there for long if a stiff wind would’ve come through Sharp Stadium.
“I was too skinny as a freshman,” Stokes said with a chuckle. “I weighed maybe 140 or 145 pounds.”
But the 6-foot, 2-inch, now-180-pound cornerback has always had the long frame, according to Eastside football coach Troy Hoff.
“At a young age, he was light, long and gangly,” Hoff said. “He had the frame and some ability, we obviously knew that. And he was tremendously competitive.”
Stokes’ competitive nature has always been a staple of his personality — perhaps early on to make up for his deficit in size. But now that he’s past the place of getting pushed around by bigger opponents, he still plays with that chip on his shoulder. You can hear it when he talks about his pride in Eastside football.
“People don’t respect us when we’re out there playing,” he said. “If you see us play, you’ll see that we’re always the smallest team, and people think, ‘Oh, we’re gonna run through these boys.’ But by the end of the game they know we might be small, but we can get at you for the whole four quarters.”
You could probably get a witness or two from Class AAAAAAA Newton High to attest to that. Eastside literally took its bigger, in-county rival to the wire in a game that ended as a 41-41 tie. In that game Stokes had four tackles, four pass breakups and registered a rushing touchdown.
“It felt great to play them like that,” he said. “They had us as a big, old underdog. Had us losing by like 21 points. Everybody was with Newton, but they saw Eastside battling.”
In fact, many of Stokes’ most memorable moments of his high school career have come against Newton. The very first game he started during his sophomore season was against the Rams, and he used his performance then as barometer for the kind of player he could become.
“I remember that sophomore game against them, I got in and made the best of it,” he said. “I got in and made a big block. Then one got drilled on that block too. I think I scored that night also. It just made me feel like I could play with anybody.”
Fast forward two years, and about 40 pounds later, and the speedy defensive back is turning heads and raising eyebrows far beyond the borders of Newton County.
At last count, Stokes has 17 Division I football scholarship offers. Many of those are coming from some of college football’s blue blood programs such as LSU, and others from places like West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Missouri and Ole Miss.
But though Stokes hasn’t narrowed down a top-five, or anything like that, there’s one offer on his table that may possibly stand out from some of the others.
“My dream school has always been Florida,” Stokes said. “Just the state, the tradition of the state of Florida. Florida is like DB University. I’ve always thought about playing football there.”
Stokes has the world class speed that could probably land him virtually anywhere he wants to go. Consistently clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.28 seconds, Stokes has won much acclaim on the track and field circuit as well.
As a sophomore he won state in 400 meters, and as a junior he took home the state crown in the 100 and 200 meters. He was the overall class champion in the 100 meters also in 2015. Beyond his speed, the unique thing about Stokes’ talent is how fast he’s caught on to playing corner. This season is his first as a full time defensive starter. And that, Hoff said, has led to the inevitable question from college recruiters.
“The thing I always get asked from college coaches is, ‘Is he truly a fast football player, or just a fast guy playing football.’” Hoff said. But with Eric, it’s definitely the other way around. It’s always been football for him. Yes, he’s fast, and a lot of that is God-given talent. But a lot of it is also Eric getting serious about getting in the weight room, working hard and going hard on the track with (track) Coach (Frankie) Iverson.”
Stokes initially saw himself at running back, and still gets in a few snaps on offense here and there. But Hoff said he’s proud of the way the consensus three-star prospect has been willing to put aside his own wishes for the team.
“With the measurable he has, I think the sky is the limit,” he said. “He’s got a rare combination of being the fastest kids in the nation, not just the state, at his size. I’ve never been on the field as a coach in high school or college with a kid that’s faster. But obviously it’s going to take more than that at the next level. And he’s shown himself to be a very coachable kid. He’s seeing the results of how fast he’s progressed at corner, and he just wants to be good. He’s in a really good spot right now.”
Said Stokes: “I just trust my coaches. They kept telling me that defensive back was my ticket, even though I’d always been playing running back. Colleges wanted me to play, and that would be my best shot, so I switched this year and I love it. All I need to work on now is technique.”
He’s got at least two more weeks of regular season high school ball to do it. A playoff berth is likely, although when Eastside straps it up against Salem on Friday, it’ll be for a chance to host a first round game and to give some of his beloved teammates more opportunity to get on the field — those things Stokes seems to want more than padding on his stat sheet.
“I just want to see my team make it to state,” he said. “I really want home field advantage. But I also want to make it so my boy Davin Griffin can play. He got hurt against Alcovy, but I would love to see him get back to play one more time. He’s my safety and he’s over top of me. People stopped wanting to throw to our side because of us.”
The selflessness doesn’t surprise Hoff. It’s par for the course, he said, when it comes to Stokes and the rest of this senior class.
“We always talk about playmakers making plays, and there are plays Eric makes that other guys can’t,” Hoff said. “But it’s not just him. We’ve got a good senior class and captains who are doing a great job. They push each other. They make each other better.”
Stokes said he wants to get better in the classroom too. He said he’ll hold off narrowing his college choices down until after he takes his ACT test. Such a well-rounded work ethic has made such an impact on the team, that it leaves Hoff feeling a bit ambivalent about Stokes’ last season.
“On one hand I wish I could have him for a couple more years,” he said. “But then on the other hand, I’m so glad that we don’t have to be the ones to face him on the field.”