The start of each high school football season, when every team has the same record, marks a time of possibilities.

Aspiring young athletes who are anxious to rise to the top of their games and experience their own gridiron greatness can make a lasting impression and leave a legacy while becoming the heroes to future potential players within their home school districts and beyond.

The 2019 season opens this weekend, but before the Friday night lights, on Thursday The Tribune-Democrat will unveil it’s special high school football preview section.

Inside the pages will be profiles on each of the 25 schools in the newspaper’s coverage area along with feature stories on a number of different facets of the area’s current crop of football talent. There will be observations regarding the contenders in each of the three conferences – the Heritage, Laurel Highlands and WestPAC – and a look at some of this season’s potential stars.

What makes an athlete someone that will leave an imprint on others?

One of the questions broached to a number of players and coaches this preseason had to do with who they considered to be their heroes in the college and NFL ranks.

Saban and Swinney

Berlin Brothersvalley coach Doug Paul and Richland’s Brandon Bailey gravitated toward the same college coaches based on a familiar formula.

“This probably has come across in just the last two or three years, but I do a lot of time studying coaches and seeing what their philosophies are,” Paul said. “I don’t know if it has to do with just winning, but just with what he’s done, and changing the culture where they are winning national championships, but Dabo Swinney of Clemson is someone that I admire. Just the way he runs his program – it’s like a family-like atmosphere, and that’s the thing we’ve tried to incorporate at Berlin.

“And within that family-type atmosphere, you are trying to win games and still have fun doing it. I just love the way he is running the Clemson program right now. They are doing it the right way and getting everyone involved.”

Bailey said he enjoys watching football and is kind of a self-described football junkie.

“In terms of being a coach, you watch guys like Nick Saban (of Alabama) and Dabo Swinney, they do it as well as anybody,” the Rams coach said. “Right now, those guys are on top, so they are the guys that you try to emulate. It seems like they have pretty good programs that people want to be a part of.”

Clemson and Alabama have met four straight years in the College Football Playoff, with the Tigers beating the Crimson Tide for the title last season.

Meyersdale coach Ryan Donaldson also mentioned Saban along with a number of other candidates that drew his admiration.

“I respect all of those college coaches because they all probably started out at the lowest levels and worked their way up to what they are now,” Donaldson said. “Among those guys are Nick Saban and Pat Narduzzi, because I’m a Pitt fan but along with those guys is another younger guy, is P.J. Fleck, Minnesota’s coach. They are good communicators and good coaches.”

Shining on Saquon

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, a former Penn State standout, has drawn the admiration of a number of the players.

“I followed the career of Saquon Barkley when he was at Penn State,” said Chestnut Ridge senior lineman Duane Knisely. "He wasn’t a lineman or anything, but he was a hard worker with a really good work ethic and was really athletic and just an all-around good guy.”

Meyersdale senior halfback/linebacker Drake Gindlesperger also respects Barkley and has done so throughout the running back’s college career into the pros.

“Saquon Barkley is definitely my favorite player,” the Red Raiders player said. “I’ve always been a big Penn State fan and I’ve watched him play all through college. He’s a great role model and a team player. He works really hard and does everything that he can to help the team. He’s not about individual statistics, he’s about team success and that’s why I look up to him.”

Some players have expressed appreciation for those that come from a little closer to home.

“Our local Division I football players, Exree Loe and Bryce Gibson, I look up to those guys a lot,” Richland senior wide receiver Caleb Burke said. “I keep in contact with them. They are great people. It’s awesome having guys that you can ask for advice. Those guys worked their butts off to get what they have, and deserve everything that they have right now.”

Burke also mentioned an NFL wide receiver who has gotten his attention.

“I also love Odell Beckham Jr. (of the Cleveland Browns),” Burke said. “He’s my idol and I love watching him play. I love the way he plays, how athletic he is and how positive he always is. He’s a good person.”

Mayfield’s ‘mojo’

Another Cleveland Browns player, quarterback Baker Mayfield, has earned Portage signal-caller Connor Price’s admiration.

“I like his attitude and his mojo,” Price said. “I like the way he plays.”

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villenueva was a captain in the U.S. Army where he served as an Army Ranger and was decorated with a Bronze Star.

“He’s a really good guy,” Portage lineman Mitchell Miko said about Villenueva. “He does a lot for charity and was in the military.”

Ligonier Valley’s Mike Petrof – a 6 foot, 2 inch, 275-pound lineman – has a natural affinity toward successful linemen.

“(Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle) Aaron Donald is probably my biggest hero in my life,” said Petrof, who has committed to play for the United States Naval Academy. “Not only do I get to train with him, but he’s such a great person. He’s humble, but he’s small. I’m at the same circumstance, where I’m not tall and he’s kind of an introvert like I am, but we talk with our game.”

Cory Isenberg is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5080.​ Follow her on Twitter @CoryIsenbergTD.

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