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Signing day a dream come true for Firebirds’ Div. I trio

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While Wednesday was a day that had been years in the making, it was no less special for Southern Nash High seniors Nadir Thompson, Dae’One Wilkins and Kendrick Bell as they made their dreams come true to play college football.

While Thompson had already signed and sent his National Letter of Intent to Virginia Tech during the NCAA’s early signing period in December, he waited until the February National Signing Day to celebrate with Wilkins and Bell, who signed with Furman and Charleston Southern, respectively.

“It’s an accomplishment because we’ve been striving for one goal the whole time we’ve been in high school, working hard every day, putting in the work on the field and just waiting for the scholarship opportunity,” Thompson said. “This day just means a lot to us.”

The three sharply dressed Division I signees were surrounded by friends, family and faculty members in the school library.

“We’ve all dreamed about this since we started playing football,” Wilkins said. “We talked about it when we were on the middle school team. Kendrick moved from Nashville to here and I think that was good for him. Really, it’s just a dream come true and we’re all blessed to be in this situation.”

The three players have been part of the most successful three-year run in Firebirds football history. The trio helped Southern Nash go 33-7 and win two 3-A Big East Conference championships in unbeaten fashion.

“You’re talking about 3.7, 3.8 and 3.9 grade point averages,” Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said. “They do things right, on and off the field. You can tell they do right in the weight room. They’re everything you want in a student-athlete and they’ve handled things the right way.”

Thompson made his way onto the radar of big-time college programs as a sophomore with speed to burn. He won the 200-meter dash at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A track and field championships in the spring of 2016. Shortly thereafter, the 5-foot-11, 174-pound speedster made a verbal commitment to N.C. State but the offers continued to come in from the likes of North Carolina, East Carolina, Wake Forest, Duke and Virginia.

But things changed over the summer and fall.

“Me and the head coach just didn’t click,” Thompson said of Wolfpack head coach Dave Doreen. “The position coach, he was cool but I just didn’t feel the same vibe I did when I first committed to them. I started going on other visits and stuff and the way they talked to me just changed.”

Thompson took his visit to Blacksburg, Virginia, and liked what he saw from Hokies head coach Justin Fuente and his staff.

“The coaches were just humble and they kept talking to me,” he said, while adding: “I liked the guys that’s on the football team and that’s what really got me. And then the 2018 recruits, I liked them a lot.”

Thompson, who won the 300-meter dash at the NCHSAA 3-A indoor track championships last year, changed his commitment to Virginia Tech last January and hasn’t looked back.

It didn’t hurt that Firebirds assistant coach and former player Kwamaine Battle is a Virginia Tech graduate and former Hokies starting defensive lineman. But Thompson said that Battle didn’t pressure him to sign with his alma mater.

“He was actually just chill about it,” Thompson said.

Despite dealing with injuries that prevented him from running in the state outdoor meet last spring and then sidelining him briefly during the 2017 football season, Thompson proved to be one of the most versatile players the Firebirds had on a roster full of athletes. He played slot receiver, halfback and even quarterback on offense while holding down a cornerback spot on defense and returning kicks.

He said he’s not even sure where he’ll see action with the Hokies, but he could play receiver or defensive back as well as kick returner.

“I’ll know by the end of this summer,” he said.

The son of Tunisha Lane of Elm City and Jimmy Thompson of Wake Forest, Thompson said he plans to major in physical therapy at Virginia Tech.

LESS CERTAIN PATHS

While Thompson had set the plan for his future more than a year ago, the paths of Wilkins and Bell were less certain.

“Nadir’s situation is a little different but we knew that we would develop over time and our game was going to be noticed by some people, so all we needed was patience,” Wilkins said. “Coach Foster told us that, too, so we knew it was going to come sometime.”

The 5-11, 194-pound Wilkins was getting plenty of attention from NCAA FCS schools by the end of the season. He got offers from Southern Conference teams Western Carolina, Elon, East Tennessee St., VMI and The Citadel as well as Charleston Southern of the Big South Conference. In the end, Wilkins preferred the Paladins over several of their SoCon cohorts .

“I looked at it as an education, first thing, and they were the top one that put me in the best situation, other than football. Then, too, they win in football,” he said of his decision. “I wanted to go to a system that would put me in the best situation to succeed in life, other than sports, and then to play football where I know we are going to have a chance to win championships.”

The Paladins went 8-5 last fall but finished 6-2 and in third place in the nine-team SoCon. Wilkins said that he will play safety at Furman, the position he played in the Firebirds secondary this past fall.

“They see me playing both safety positions and the outside linebacker that’s like a safety too,” he said.

Wilkins, who averaged 6.9 yards on 78 carries in his Southern Nash career, was primarily a defender. He was the Big East and Wilson Times Defensive Player of the Year while playing inside linebacker as a junior. However, the move to safety his senior season was the right one, he said.

“I’m athletic enough to move around but I believe if I was still playing linebacker, I wouldn’t have gotten what I got,” he said.

Besides, playing safety made the Firebirds a better team and that “All In” concept that is seared into the consciousness of Southern Nash players just makes them better teammates.

“We looked at it like a team thing because no one person won a game for us,” Wilkins said. “It was different people that helped us out. We had all different types of weapons this year so just because we’re going to these colleges doesn’t mean we were just the ones that were doing stuff. This all showed us that we’re going to have to work hard for whoever we play for.”

The son of Sylvia Richardson of Bailey, Wilkins said he’s planning to major in either criminal justice or exercise science.

AT HOME IN CHARLESTON

While Wilkins waited to find the right fit for his future, Bell’s wait was even longer. Never mind that he ran for more than 3,700 yards, caught nearly 500 yards of passes and scored 62 total touchdowns in three years. Never mind that he was tough enough to take on the biggest defender on the other team in a goal-line situation or outrun the faster opponent in the open field. At 5-8, 184 pounds, Bell wasn’t getting the attention of many Div. I programs. He was getting calls from Div. II teams Chowan and UNC Pembroke as well as NAIA member St. Andrews. However, none of those really rang a bell with Bell.

“I’m smart. I know situations. I’m powerful. I can also break a run,” Bell said, listing his qualities as a running back.

Then he got a call from the Big South Conference Buccaneers.

“I knew my opportunity would come so I just waited and Charleston Southern just kind of felt like it was home,” he said.

Foster said the triple-option offense run by the Buccaneers boded well for Bell.

“Charleston Southern’s a perfect fit with their three-back system,” the Firebirds coach said. “I told the people at Charleston Southern that I’d quit my job if he didn’t make it. That’s how much I believe in him but it’s hard not to believe in him with what he’s done for us because he takes a lot of licks — and gives a lot of licks.”

The youngest of three children (including brother, Brian Battle, and sister, Brittany Battle) of Chiqueta and Charlie Grant of Elm City, Bell thinks he will fit in at Charleston Southern, too.

“When I was younger, I switched from Nashville and came to Southern Nash,” he said. “It was a family at Nashville and then I became (part of the) family at Southern Nash and I believe I can become family with the Bucs.”

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