Chris Johnson doesn't like to talk about his sophomore year at South Aiken High School. He'll always remember it as the year he couldn't play football.
"I didn't play my 10th grade year, and I hated it," he said. "It was the worst for me. I definitely learned my lesson."
Johnson, now a senior on the South Aiken football team, said he missed a few workouts early in his 10th grade year and didn't bother to tell anyone he wasn't going to be at practice.
South Aiken coach Robert Wrightenberry said a team policy requires a player to be kicked off the team for a certain amount of unexcused absences from practice.
Wrightenberry didn't make an exception for the up-and-coming tailback.
"You either want to be here or you don't," Wrightenberry said. "But it's all water under the bridge now."
The harsh punishment was one of those "tough love" lessons that hurt for the moment but paid off in the long run.
"I'm out there everyday now -- perfect attendance," Johnson said. "I won't do something like that again."
And the work has paid off. Two weeks ago, Johnson hadn't recorded more than one touchdown in a single game. He's tallied eight in the past two games.
The performances, which came with a sophomore center and a freshman right tackle on the offensive line, have led to a surge in the South Aiken running game, and Wrightenberry said it's what the team needed after starting the year 0-4.
"C.J. has really come on the last two-three ballgames," he said. "I don't know if it's because we're giving him the ball more, or if he's just more motivated to do what he's always been capable of doing."
Behind Johnson's touchdowns, South Aiken has rattled off three consecutive wins, which puts the Thoroughbreds in contention for a Region 5-AAA championship.
They'll face undefeated Airport on Friday, and a win would give South Aiken (2-0 in the region) sole possession of first place.
"It is a big game," Wrightenberry said. "We've set ourselves up to where we control our own destiny if we win this game."
The task won't be easy. Airport (7-0) will enter Friday's contest averaging 42.3 points per game this season and 50.5 points per region game. They dismantled defending region champion Midland Valley two weeks ago with a passing game that tallied 312 yards.
Johnson said he knows the South Aiken offense will have to put up big numbers to keep up with the talent on the other side of the field.
"They can put a lot of points on the board," he said. "So the offense needs to bring it this time. It's our biggest game of the year."
Wrightenberry said another key will be the Thoroughbreds' defensive unit, which must pressure Airport quarterback W.T. Murden and avoid giving up big plays.
That's one of the area's South Aiken has improved the most.
"We're getting a little more physical," Wrightenberry said. "That's what we're going to have to do. If we're as physical in the first five minutes (of Friday's game) as we've been the last three ballgames, I feel pretty good about our chances. Those first five minutes will be the key to us Friday night."
Reach Billy Byler at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.