The sun was shining in every way Monday afternoon during football practice at Lawrence High.
Chris Gaston, a senior who last year was the quarterback, learned that he would be playing elsewhere, at slot receiver, making way for talented newcomer Bradley Strauss, a sophomore. Rather than sulk, Gaston’s chin was where every good golfer’s should remain throughout the swing. It was up and still. Gaston sounded like a senior leader, ready to have the back of every teammate, especially underclassmen finding their way.
“I’m a little disappointed, but I’ll do whatever I can to help the team,” Gaston said. “(Strauss) has proven himself pretty well so far. I don’t think we’ll have any problems. He’ll be in a huddle full of seniors, but I think he’ll be able to handle it. If I have to step in and say something to help him, I will, but I really don’t think we’ll have any problems.”
Tall, fast and blessed with a strong arm, Strauss ran for two touchdowns and threw for another in a Lions’ intrasquad scrimmage Saturday.
“He’s a natural quarterback,” Gaston said. “He throws well, he’s athletic and he can run.”
It didn’t take hearing the team-first words uttered by Gaston to notice signs of sacrifice in the proud program coming off an atypical 1-8 season. All it took was one look at Jamal Brown, the senior right tackle/nose guard.
Brown, who said his weight peaked at 390 pounds when he had surgery on his foot, has lost more than 50 pounds and it shows. He said he misses “fast food in general,” but not enough to jeopardize his team’s chances of improving by going back to eating it.
Brown took instruction from the same man who used to help his father with his conditioning. Gilbert Brown, a former Green Bay Packers nose tackle who was a Big Eight all-academic selection when at Kansas, sought the help of his KU strength and conditioning coach Fred Roll throughout his pro career.
Roll, who has worked with Lawrence High players during summers, was instrumental in helping Gilbert’s son Jamal give himself a better shot at a big senior year.
“During the summer, I worked out twice a day, once on Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday was my chill day,” Jamal Brown said.
LHS coach Dirk Wedd said he plans to use Brown both ways. The numbers on Brown’s scale are down and Wedd is just as pleased that the number of bodies in the program is up, all the way up to 115.
Last season, the Lions had to go into overtime of their final game to get a victory, against Leavenworth, against which the Lions open the season, Sept. 3 at LHS.
“We’re really eager for the season to start,” Gaston said. “We’re picking up right where we left off, playing Leavenworth, and they’ll be looking for revenge.”
For the second year, the Lions have their own on-campus football field on which to practice and play games. Bathrooms are under construction and the press box isn’t quite completed, but it feels like home to the team.
“I’m loving it,” Jamal Brown said. “People say, ‘Free State has this,’ and ‘Free State has that.’ I’m loving what we have. It’s all our own and that’s something we’ve never had.”