COLUMBIA — They call him Big Jon. That might be an understatement.
The Hickman football team has plenty of big players. Left tackle Donald Blackman is big. Defensive lineman Javante Crum is big. Even linebacker J’den Cox, who is listed as 212 pounds on the team's roster, can be described as big.
The Hickman football team walked off the field at Rockhurst High School last Friday with an unfamiliar feeling. For the first time this season, they had lost a game.
The 34-7 loss to Rockhurst dropped the Kewpies to 7-1. It didn't affect the team's No. 2 seeding for the district playoffs, which start Friday. But it did teach coach Arnel Monroe something about his team heading into the opening-round game against Timberland High School.
"We bought a lesson in focus; we bought a lesson in doing the little things right," Monroe said. "It was a test, and we failed it. We'll see how we respond."
Hickman gets a chance to respond against the No. 7 seed Timberland. The Kewpies are the higher-ranked team, but Monroe doesn't want his team focusing on that.
"These kids haven't had success, and it sort of bit us in the butt," Monroe said. "We stopped doing some things that we had done for the previous seven weeks. Therein lies our problem."
Quarterback Mason Murray realizes the importance of putting the loss behind him.
"Of course you want to win all the games you can," Murray said. "But we have to focus on winning the ones that count in the playoffs."
Hickman's regular season success has given them home field advantage for Friday's game. Before the game, Hickman will have a ceremony to rename the stadium Alumni Stadium and introduce the inaugural members of the "Ring of Honor," a project Monroe started to honor the great Kewpies of the past.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
But big doesn’t do Jon Jennings justice.
As Jennings shuffles over to the offensive huddle, his massive 6-foot-8-inch, 400-pound frame dwarfs his teammates. He looks like he belongs on a different field, as he towers above the rest of the Kewpies on the sideline and in the huddle.
When he lines up against an opposing defensive lineman, Jennings’ size advantage seems downright unfair. Jennings would have a size advantage on most NFL players, let alone the high school players he is tasked with blocking.
And yet, despite his rare height, Jennings is not Hickman’s best offensive lineman. In fact, Jennings has struggled to get his 400-pound body on the field consistently. He was overweight at the beginning of the season, has had lapses in focus and was suspended for getting in a fight outside of school.
“I made some stupid decisions,” Jennings said. “I knew I messed up, but I also know to play, I have to work to get my position back. I have to work hard every day at practice.”
Jennings’ work ethic has been inconsistent throughout his career, coach Arnel Monroe said. Jennings had previously quit the team, but his return has been his most successful stint with the Kewpies. Still, Jennings is far from where he needs to be, Monroe said.
“People think cause you’re big, you can automatically play football,” Monroe said. “It’s a craft to play offensive line, and he has a long way to go.”
With 45 minutes left in Wednesday’s practice, Hickman was working on defensive drills. Big Jon doesn’t play defense, so he and fellow offensive lineman Donald Blackman started running laps.
Jennings plods around the track at a sluggish pace, but a smile is plastered to his face. Coaches and teammates joke with Jennings as he passes by the bench with each lap, his sweat-stained T-shirt removed and tucked away in his pants.
The conditioning isn’t the easiest part of Jennings’ day, but he has the support of his teammates, particularly Blackman, who runs the laps with the super-sized offensive tackle.
“Sometimes he gets back to not wanting to practice,” Blackman said. “But we just tell him we’re doing it too. It’s hard for us just like it is for him.”
While Jennings’ effort is sporadic at times, his teammates take notice when he puts in the extra work. The Kewpies head into the first round of the district playoffs with a 7-1 record, and quarterback Mason Murray realizes the team needs everyone going full speed.
“When he does practice hard and play hard, he can be a great player,” Murray said. “We just need that from him all the time. He’s a big part of our line.”
Jennings worked his way back onto the field for Hickman’s most recent home game against Jackson, but his playing time was cut short because of a personal foul penalty. His size advantage was on full display as he tossed a helpless Jackson defensive lineman to the turf. The only problem was the referee had already blown the play dead.
“I just didn’t hear the whistle,” Jennings said.
Those mental lapses are what Monroe hopes to eliminate. Despite his shortcomings, Jennings' 2012 season has been the most successful as a high school athlete.
“I think it’s the first time he’s been involved in a team sport where he’s felt supported,” Monroe said. “I think these guys pull for him. They want him to succeed just like they want to succeed.”
Jennings’ smile is as wide as his physique when talking about him teammates. He’s enjoying football again.
“I just have fun with my teammates,” Jennings said, smiling ear to ear.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.