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Steven Peoples was at the 5-yard line. Charging ahead, he was soon at the 10, then the 20. Breaking through a barrier like it was made of paper, he veered left into the open field, careful not to mishandle the cargo his teammates had entrusted him to carry in his right hand. A gang of players was running behind him.
Normally, the scene would be another highlight-reel play for Peoples, the talented sophomore runningback for Galax High School. Saturday, though, the cargo he carried was a flag with the Maroon Tide’s ‘MT’ emblem on it. The barrier was paper, a banner held by the Galax cheerleaders. The gang behind him consisted of his teammates, and Peoples, in street clothes aside from his football jersey, was leading his team onto the field before the Tide’s state semifinal game with Lunenburg Central.
Serving the second of a two-game suspension after being ejected in Galax’s second-round win over Castlewood, such has been the extent of Peoples’ on-field participation the last two weeks.
But he knew, even after the Castlewood game, that he would play again, even though it would mean that his teammates would have to play their way into the state finals for it to happen.
It has. And he can’t wait for that first collision on the opening kickoff Saturday when Galax meets Clintwood for the Group A Division 1 state championship.
Peoples was under a pile at the end of a play in the Castlewood game, and as will happen under piles at the end of plays, a little shoving and a little talking took place. A referee perceived a punch being thrown, Peoples was tossed, and per VHSL rules, he was dealt a two-game suspension.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “I cried for a while, but I realized it was only two games and that my team was going to get me back in it. It’s been hard, but I got through it.”
Galax coach Mark Dixon used the word ‘devastated’ in talking about Peoples’ emotions following the Castlewood game. But he’s seen a better kid come out of the experience.
“He changed that night,” Dixon said. “I jumped him on the sideline because I hadn’t seen what happened, and his response was, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’ But when I saw the film, I realized he had changed because he was willing to take much more responsibility for something that maybe wasn’t quite as much his fault. I realized he wouldn’t have done that before.”
Nor would Peoples have scraped mud from his teammates’ cleats on the sideline, nor brought them water, which he did for two games.
He has been probably the most talented scout team runningback in Southwest Virginia the last two weeks, impersonating Honaker High School’s Jerod Honaker for a week, then Lunenburg’s Brandon Townsend last week.
This past week, he’s been back to his old self – literally – practicing for what Maroon No. 22 will do on the field, not Orange No. 5 or Purple No. 5.
“The experience, no matter how people view it, has made him a better man,” Dixon said.
Peoples has been a perfect compliment to the bruising style of No. 1 rusher Jordan Vaughan. Averaging more than 10 yards per carry, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Peoples racked up 790 yards and 11 touchdowns through 12 games.
A starter in the defensive secondary only since late in the season, he has totaled 47 tackles and six passes broken up on the year.
In his absence, older brother Donte Peoples, a junior, moved up a notch on the offensive depth chart and has responded with 171 yards and four touchdowns in the past two games. In the process, he leapfrogged his younger brother in the season yardage stats and will enter Saturday’s game with 822 yards and 17 TDs.
“I knew that since Steven was out, that the team needed me,” said Donte. “I’ve had to step up because Jordan might need a break. I just stepped up and took the role to help the team out.”
Though Steven wasn’t thrilled to see his brother surpass his rushing total for the year, Donte had Steven’s back more than just on the field.
“I just told him that he can’t let adrenaline get the best of him,” Donte said. “Even if somebody’s pushing you, or saying stuff to you, you’ve just got to give him a wink, go back to the huddle and don’t let it bother you.”
Having two biological brothers on the team helped Steven through it. So did having 40-some fraternal brothers. The older kids on the team have been around and won a lot of games. They wrapped up the sophomore and told him he’d be fine. Steven felt honored to carry the flag onto the field for his team.
“I was happy because they wanted me to do that,” he said. “It made me part of the team, like I was still there playing with them.”
Before the Lunenburg semifinal, two Galax players, thinking that they were alone in the locker room, were overheard saying how they needed to win that day so Steven could have another chance.
“They didn’t want to win to get a state ring,” said Dixon, “they wanted to win so Donte’s little brother could play one more game. That’s the kind of kids we’ve got.”
Now that it’s in the past?
“Yeah, I’m ready to hit again,” he said. “It’s been two weeks. It’s time to go.”
Tomorrow, it’ll be a football again in Steven Peoples’ hands as he charges upfield. And the gang behind him will be chasing, not following.