By Jonathan Deal
When Kyle Shoulders is on the field, the Tanner Rattlers win football games, plain and simple. The departing senior has a 49-4 record since starting the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2009.
Since then Shoulders has racked up numerous honors and the Tanner senior will add one more to that list as the News Courier’s 2012 Most Valuable Player in Limestone County.
“He’s real workmanlike, just goes about his business,” Tanner head coach Laron White said. “He’s the hardest working kid we’ve ever had come through the program. He runs every sprint hard. After the game, he’s just completely worn out.”
That’s high praise coming from a coach that has seen dozens of players go on to play at the next level under his tutelage. One of those is Kyle’s older brother, Keith, a starting linebacker at Samford University.
White said he immediately noticed the younger Shoulders ability the moment he stepped on the field.
“He started as a ninth-grader because he uses his hands well and he understands the game of football,” White said. “You show him how to do a drill in practice and he can take it to the game. And that’s one thing a lot of people can’t do.”
Learning the right technique is one thing, but fundamentals will only get you so far. Shoulders real strength is just that, being physically able to push around offensive linemen with a strength that comes to natural. Still Shoulders remained modest when talking about his prowess in the weight room.
“I really don’t believe I’m that strong,” Shoulders said. “It’s just how you use your strength I guess. Sometimes it’s just about technique.”
Following a solid freshman season, Shoulders soon became a dominant player along Tanner’s defensive line and a key figure in the backfield on offense. As a junior, Shoulders helped the Rattlers reach the school’s first state championship game where they lost to Elba. Shoulders said the loss gave the team motivation heading into the off-season.
“It was all about refocusing,” Shoulders said. “Knowing that we had another shot to go all the way. This offseason wasn’t any different. They made us work even harder.”
The rising senior had a personal goal outside of making it back to that state championship game. After battling nagging injuries during his sophomore and junior seasons, Shoulders said his mentality for his senior season was to “push through all the pain.”
And he did. The senior remained relatively injury free this season until picking up a toe injury during a third-round playoff game against Fultondale that required him to wear a boot the week after. Still, Shoulders didn’t miss a game. He was back out there, pushing through the pain against Reeltown with a trip back to the state title game on the line.
“They said I jammed it, but I still don’t really remember how I injured it,” Shoulders said. “I mean, it hurt, but me sitting out was not going to get us where we wanted to go.”
Playing with the injured toe, Shoulders played a key role in the Fultondale win. Along with shutting down all-state quarterback Ardarius Stewart, Shoulders scored the game-winning touchdown on a 30-yard run up the gut where he broke five tackles and ran over a defender at the goal line.
“That’s when he gets hurt most of the time, when he runs the ball. Because he runs like it’s his last carry,” White said. “He runs with reckless abandon. But this year, he had to take a backseat because we went to the I-formation. He had to play some fullback, which he could do for anybody in the country. He is unselfish and he did a great job at it.”
Used more as the feature runner in single-back formations as a junior, Shoulders took his new role in stride. As the lead blocker, Shoulders blocked for fellow all-state players Hayden Stephens and Fred Rich, who combined for 4,593 yards this season (328 yards per game). Shoulders still managed to pick up more than 400 yards and five touchdowns when he did carry the load.
“His carry might have been double last year what they were this year,” White said. “He took it in stride. Plus, that gave us the opportunity to market him as fullback at the second level. Getting in front of Hayden and Fred, that opened up a lot of opportunities for him at the next level.”
Shoulders defensive numbers also dropped during his senior season, but for a different reason. As Shoulders improved as a defensive end, his reputation became well known to opposing 2A teams. When teams were brave enough to run his way, Shoulders racked up 45 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.
“The first seven or eight games, nobody ran his way because they knew about him,” White said. “He’d squeeze and take on blocks, he’s just going to make every tackle when they run his way. He’s not a real pass-rush guy, because there’s not a lot of drop-back passers in 2A.”
Shoulders and seven other seniors did what no other senior class had done at Tanner before — win a state football championship. For Shoulders, it is a fitting way to end a career that few will match at the school.
“It’s a great feeling,” Shoulders said. “If we would have lost, it would have felt like last year, just kind of depressed. I’m happy and I’m blessed to have such a great season my senior year.”