COVINGTON, Ga. — The final scene was split almost perfectly in half.
As Parkview football players, coaches, parents, students and fans rushed to one side of the field to celebrate a first-round, overtime playoff win against a Newton squad that devolved from dark horse state title contender to an injury-plagued bunch with a wet-behind-the-ears sophomore quarterback, the other side of the field told a different tale.
Newton players hugged each other. Some collapsed in the arms of coaches, staff, teachers and parents heaving heavy sobs. Rams head coach Terrance Banks tried to fight off tears and quell the lump in his throat while addressing his team one last time on a football field for the 2017 season — a field that seemingly robbed them of a chance at postseason redemption.
Current Clemson freshman Darnell Jefferies wept in the arms of a nearby coach. Neal Howard, that aforementioned green signal caller, was being consoled by those who were proud of the way he stepped in and stepped up unexpectedly after senior Myron Middlebrooks went down for the season against Archer.
Then there was Nuru Tinch.
The chiseled, 6-foot 212-pound specimen of high school tailback stood alone, about five feet from the Newton sideline, and 45 yards removed from the place where Howard’s final pass attempt fell to the turf, touching off Parkview’s celebration and a bit of Newton protest.
The expectations for Tinch, personally, had been just as a high as they were for his senior-heavy team that seemingly had the size, speed and strength to challenge Grayson and Archer in a top-heavy Region 8-AAAAAAA – the region that Banks once dubbed “the SEC West of Georgia 7A football.”
And when you look at Tinch’s 2017 season stat line — 821 yards on 102 carries, eight yards per tote and nine touchdowns — it feels respectable. To Tinch, and everyone who coached him however, it felt disappointing because they all knew the tailback’s talent was far beyond respectable.
But now, moments after the final buzzer of the season and his beleaguered high school career, Tinch’s eyes were glazed over with frustration, and perhaps a tinge of regret.
Standing close to the 50-yard line with a forlorn gaze at the Parkview scoreboard fixed upon his face, a few teammates and coaches, after collecting themselves emotionally, passed by him, patted him on his shoulders and kept moving. You know the football hurt was there, but Tinch’s eyes seemed to suggest something deeper than football was troubling him.
A week prior, Tinch looked primed for the playoffs after rumbling for 125 yards on 11 carries and a score in the regular season finale against rival Rockdale. Against Parkview? One yard. One carry. Injuries sidelined him for virtually the entire game while Thomas came in and stole the show.
It was painful enough of a moment to where it took Tinch almost a full year to come to terms with it enough to speak on it.
“Getting hurt that first play of my senior playoff game, man,” he paused, then continued. “I had to sit there and watch my teammates go to war.”
But that wasn’t the only bit of emotional baggage he carried off the field that night.
It was an all-too frustrating and familiar scene for him, as Tinch not only missed chunks of games in 2017 because of injury, but also his junior season where he played in pieces of only six games while being sidelined the rest of the way because of a bum ankle.
And maybe that was what the look on his face was trying to convey.
Tinch finally turned his back on the scoreboard and began a slow saunter off the field, still donning is No. 1 blue and white jersey, helmet off, shoulder pads in hand and now joined, presumably, by a family member, as he was forced to carry a bunch of what-ifs into his college football career at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
At least that was the plan.
Late July 2017 was a different story for Tinch. July 27 was the exact day, in fact, that Tinch committed to helping the revival of the UAB football program which was bouncing back from several years of dormancy.
When Tinch made that pledge to the Birmingham, Alabama school, you thought one of two things — either that the Blazers got a steal of a prospect, or it would be a mere matter of time before the Newton running back would start getting the kind of Division I offers that make a player decommit from his mid-major selection before National Signing Day.
Anyone who’d been around Tinch on the football field knew he had that kind of potential.
“Nuru’s the kind of player that, if he stays healthy, every Power Five school in the Southeast will be on him,” Newton assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Skelton said shortly after the UAB decision. “He’s got the potential to be the best running back in the state.”
Only if you saw him raw in practice would you realize that this wasn’t just a dose of coach speak hyperbole. Remember Jaquan Henderson? Former Newton four-star prospect and now a sophomore linebacker at Georgia Tech looking poised to find starting time?
Well, Skelton recalls a particular moment in practice when Tinch made Henderson look pedestrian.
“The first summer he got here, we put him up against Jaquan in a tire drill,” Skelton said. “Of course, Jaquan is one of our best athletes, and Nuru took off and dragged him across the field and made it look easy. All the coaches kind of looked at each other, and we all knew what we were thinking. That’s really when we first found out how strong he is and how freakish of an athlete he is. And he hadn’t really spent any time in the weight room. It was just natural.”
Despite the tantalizing notion that Tinch, with a healthy senior campaign, could’ve drawn offers from larger schools, the former Newton Ram insisted — both then and now — that he was content with sticking and staying with UAB.
“I really was very honored that UAB offered me a scholarship, and I was glad to commit,” Tinch said. “But situations came up where I had to take a different route.”
Those situations were part of what was on his brain as he slowly shuffled off the Parkview field last November. They were also the reasons why, after the season was done, Tinch walked away from Covington, Newton High School and Georgia about as inconspicuously as he left the scene of his final football game.
For so long, Tinch felt as if he had to keep those things tightly under wraps. More than eight months later, he seemed relieved at the ability to speak candidly about them.
“Throughout the season and during that night, I was thinking about how I’d been dealing with family issues my teammates had no idea about,” Tinch said.
Highlighting those issues was “a sudden family crisis that came up where I chose to leave here and go back to Florida to be with my mother, sisters, nephews and nieces,” according to Tinch.
“I ended up having to relocate in the middle of my senior year, having to trust God’s process,” he said. “It was tough, but in the end, all these things helped me reinvent myself, which is the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me.”
There’s a reason why football coaches are often cast as father figures. Many times they become surrogate parents to the athletes they coach.
While fans are cheering for a player like Tinch to get it together long enough to reach the end zone on a consistent basis, coaches become fixated on getting them to Pomp and Circumstance day.
For this reason, Newton’s Banks will tell anyone willing to listen that if they think the most consuming part of his — or any coach worth their salt’s — job is figuring out Xs and Os and how to beat Grayson they are grossly mistaken.
“My job is summed up in three things: Serve the kids, honor our staff and to try and change the world, maybe not by what we do, but by what happens with these kids and how we impact their lives for the future,” Banks said. “In many ways we’re like ministers.”
That’s why, while many on the local football landscape may have been pining for a physically healthy Tinch, Banks shifted his priorities when he realized the things hampering his running back’s productivity were deeper than aches and pains afflicting his limbs.
“We knew about the struggles with his mom and dad, with living with his uncle for so long, and just other tough things that happened in his life that really changed that whole dynamic with how we dealt with him,” Banks said. “It was something that was evolving during the season. We understood that with any kid, your mom is a very special person to you, and you’ll want to be there for her and with her however you can.
“Everything for him had not gone the way it should go for a child, but we still tried to give him what we could in terms of helping him know what has to happen for you to be a success. We wanted to let him know that what he was dealing with doesn’t make him a failure. We knew what was going on, and we knew the transition could happen."
It was just the timing, Banks said, that caught everyone off guard.
“I think it happened faster than we wanted it to happen,” he said.
“The final decision of him leaving, and everything about it, was sudden and we weren’t really prepared for it to be that quick. But while we had him, we as coaches were still going to hold him to the same standard as every other Ram, but at the same time, behind closed doors, we’re going to do what we can to help.”
And the way Banks, Skelton and his staff went the extra mile for Tinch was definitely not lost on him.
“(Coach Banks) did everything in his power to help me with my problems off the field and academically,” Tinch said. “And he pushed me past my limits on the field. No matter what anyone has to say about him, I’ve witnessed his great leadership.
“Nobody knew that he would hold himself accountable for his mistakes. Hell, if he was wrong, he’d run sprints just like he was a player for the team. He’s all about family, and I wouldn’t have had a good season without him.”
Typically when a player talks about good seasons, some litany of statistical proof or highlight reel exploits follows as corroborating evidence. For Tinch, the evidence was more immaterial than that.
Tinch hadn’t made a personal tweet on Twitter since November 5 when he tweeted out his new profile picture which showed him running away from Rockdale Bulldog defenders during a game that happened a week prior to Parkview.
When Tinch was active on the football field, he was active on social media as well, often tweeting and retweeting highlights of plays he’d made, or tweets of praise heaped upon him by UAB fans seeking to whet their gridiron appetites for his arrival.
But when Tinch went football silent, he also went Twitter silent, leaving many to ask, ‘What happened to Nuru?’
He broke that silence on June 9 when he retweeted a congratulatory message directed to him from Skelton. Underneath Skelton’s “Congratulations” was a picture advertising the commencement ceremony for Sunrise (Florida) High School’s 2018 graduating class. The former Newton High back copied the tweet and added his own expression of gratitude.
Nuru Tinch was a part of that graduating class.
Given the circumstance, his graduation, Tinch said, ranked as a bigger accomplishment than anything else he was able to do — or could’ve potentially done — on the football field.
The highlights and proof of that could not be captured on a video camera.
“What I was going through made me become more closer to God,” Tinch said. “I started praying every day and getting more into the word of God. He kept blessing me and molding me into the person I was destined to be.”
Through it all, Tinch said he also gained family members who didn’t share his last name or bloodline.
“Coach Skelt is considered family,” he said. “Coach Banks. Just everybody who tried to be understanding of me and who never gave up on me and who always wanted the best for me. No matter what the ‘he said’ or ‘she said,’ was, they all stayed by my side, and I can’t thank them enough.”
When Banks reflects on his part in Tinch’s journey, he’s thankful as well — primarily for the fact that a situation that could’ve ended horribly for Tinch has actually propelled him into a bright future, including his being enrolled to Kilgore Community College in Kilgore, Texas to start on his path toward a business degree and a Division I football scholarship.
“That’s my main goal. To get my degree in business,” Tinch said. “And if it’s God’s will, I want to have a shot at the NFL. But if the NFL doesn’t work out, I see myself being a successful business man. I love music, and I want a career as a music producer.”
Tinch’s new school has turned out its fair share of NCAA Division I players since 2010. Forty-one to be exact. And since 2000, 20 players who matriculated through Kilgore have found their way onto NFL rosters, including four still-active players.
Don’t be surprised if Tinch adds to both of those totals someday soon. Banks won’t be.
“I expect that one day, two or three years down the road, you’re going to turn on your TV on a Saturday and see Nuru Tinch’s name called out with the big boys,” Banks said. “In fact, I’ll say it’s possible and probable. The football part came easy for him. Always has. He had to work through injuries, and he had to focus on the mental part.
“I think now, he’s jumped some of his biggest hurdles. As long as he keeps that focus, there’s no limit to what he can do.”