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STANHOPE — Just a few seconds into the Southern Nash High football season last August, Darius Edmundson demonstrated that he was going to have a special senior year.
Edmundson took the opening kickoff of the Firebirds’ first game against Cary Green Hope and motored 79 yards for a touchdown, setting off one of the most successful football seasons in Southern Nash history. Edmundson, who only started playing football at Southern Nash the year before, parlayed his football experience into more success on the basketball court, earning him the 3-A Big East Conference Player of the Year honor from league coaches.
A promising senior season in track and field was waylaid by an injury but Edmundson’s opening salvo proved prophetic as he was presented the 2019 Tom Ham Athlete of the Year as presented by The Wilson Times on Tuesday before a small gathering of teammates, friends, family and coaches in the Southern Nash gym.
Edmundson was deeply appreciative and humbled to know that he was just the fourth Southern Nash athlete to receive the towering trophy, standing more than 5 feet tall.
“It feels really, really good,” he said, barely able to hold back a huge smile. “I didn’t honestly think I would win this award because there’s so many good athletes in our area and just having this award is really a blessing. … Honestly, I didn’t really expect this. It really shocked me when I came in, seeing how big it was!”
Edmundson, who has signed to play football at Louisburg College, was quick to thank Firebirds football head coach Brian Foster, basketball head coach Robbie Kennedy and football assistant coach Buddy Williams.
“I can’t thank anybody else before Coach Foster and Coach Kennedy,” Edmundson said. “They’re the main two dudes that I really look up to, and also Coach Buddy. They push me every day to work hard.”
Kennedy said that Edmundson’s big senior year took root last summer, during football workouts and in his commitment to improving on his own after playing only basketball as a freshman and then adding track as a sophomore before playing all three sports his last two years.
“Last (school) year, he struggled a little bit during the (football) season and then last summer, he had an awesome summer,” Kennedy said. “He was our leader for basketball, took over games, and I think him having a little bit of experience in football his junior year helped him with football and basketball this year. I told him before we started that his goal should be to be player of the year in football, basketball and track and be all-conference in all three.”
Edmundson was All-Big East Conference as well as Wilson Times All-Area in football and basketball and possibly could have fulfilled Kennedy’s directive in track before a pulled hamstring ended his season before the conference championship meet.
Edmundson is the first Times Athlete of the Year from Southern Nash since Georgia Davis in 2002. The other two were Rikki Cockrell in 1997 and Julius Peppers, the recently retired Carolina Panthers star, in 1998.
Foster said that while Peppers was in a class all his own, Edmundson ranks up there with any other athlete that Southern Nash has produced.
“There’ll never be another Julius,” Foster said. “He was so far above anybody else that it’s not even funny! But Darius has a lot of God-given ability, that’s for sure.”
EXPLOSIVE IN FOOTBALL
That ability came to the surface on Friday nights in the fall. Despite not playing until his junior year, Edmundson emerged as an explosive option on special teams and offense while playing providing airtight defense from his cornerback position.
He intercepted six passes, tied for seventh-most among players in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A ranks, and piled up 191 yards in returning the picked-off passes, including two for touchdowns. Edmundson picked up a fumble and returned it 46 yards and returned six kickoffs for 239 yards and two TDs, including his season-opening scoring gallop. He also managed to get 11 carries for 50 yards and a TD and caught three passes for 81 yards.
On a team with Associated Press All-State running back Zonovan Knight, who enrolled early at North Carolina State University, and junior Quinton Cooley, who recently committed to Wake Forest University, and their combined 4,562 all-purpose yards, Edmundson proved to be one of the Firebirds’ most dangerous all-around threats. He averaged 11 yards every time he touched the ball last season.
“He was just a good athlete that whenever he touched the ball, something good happened because he was such a good athlete,” Kennedy said. “That’s what me and Brian kept trying to tell him when he was a freshman and sophomore: Just give it a chance.”
And were it not for some untimely penalties, Foster reminded, Edmundson’s toll could have been far greater.
“He’s probably had six or seven runs called back, a pair of interceptions called back, a punt return called back, a kickoff return called back!” Foster said.
The Firebirds reeled off 10 straight wins, claiming their third straight Big East crown in unbeaten fashion, before being spilled by Eastern Alamance in the second round of the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs.
Edmundson’s athleticism, if not outright speed, served him well on the basketball court as he averaged 15.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game in leading the Firebirds to a 16-10 mark. Southern Nash, which tied for second in the Big East, reached the third round of the state playoffs for just the second time in Kennedy’s tenure.
Kennedy praised Edmundson’s work ethic, both in games and in practice.
“He’d have people coming up to him after the games talking about how hard he played. He’s come a long ways since he was a freshman — a long ways,” Kennedy said. “In basketball, he was always kind of raw but he worked at it. That’s one thing I’ll give him: Whenever I had that gym open, he was here working.”
Foster pointed to the 6-foot, 160-pound Edmundson’s ability to get offensive rebounds as indicative of his athleticism and desire.
“Just go get it. That’s what they always tell me: Just go get it,” said Edmundson, who was named to the North Carolina Basketball Coaches Association All-District 3 third team. “If anybody’s in the way, just get them out of the way and jump over them. Those are the only two options I’ve got!
“It’s crazy because a lot of those guys are taller than me, like Northern (Nash), and I’m still jumping and getting rebounds over their heads.”
But his favorite basketball memory, Edmundson said, was just having fun with his teammates.
“Just the bond and the friendship, because it was a whole new team (from the year before),” he said. “I learned a lot from A.J (Jones). I didn’t know he was a baseball superstar! Just the friendships I had with them and having a really good time. Those will be the guys I will always tell my kids about. I had a really great time my senior year.”
TRUNCATED TRACK SEASON
Edmundson debated not participating in track this spring.
“I wasn’t going to run because I was going to focus on going to college and doing skill work on either basketball or football, whatever I was going to go to college for,” he said. “But then I focused on football and then hurt my hamstring, and it really set me back a lot.”
He started off the track season with regional qualifying times in the 100-meter dash and as part of the Firebirds 4x100 relay and was near a qualifier in the long jump. Edmundson was part of Southern Nash’s team win at the Scott Jones Memorial Classic as presented by The Wilson Times, but then running a 40-yard sprint at Louisburg, injured his hamstring. That pretty much shut down his track career at Southern Nash.
“Track, I really feel like I did everything I could when I was healthy, but I’m glad for what I did though,” he said.
As in football, Edmundson didn’t give himself enough time to fully develop as a track star. But he’s glad that listened to Foster, Kennedy and all his teammates and played all three sports and hopes that future would-be one-sport athletes take his lead and play other sports.
“I’m just really grateful that I’m leaving this behind,” Edmundson said. “I know a lot of guys look up to me. I know that Coach Buddy and Coach Kennedy and Coach Foster will tell stories about me and I hope that people listen the first time to Coach Foster if they play football. Hopefully, they’ll get it the first time.”