The football careers of Center Grove seniors Max Norris and Gavin Everett became intertwined around the time the two stood no taller than a practice tackling dummy.
“They played bantam football together,” Trojans coach Eric Moore remembers. “Gavin has always been taller, the player running around making plays, and Max has always been the fastest. They’re winners, and that’s what you want in players.”
This successful pairing — “We’ve been best friends since the third grade,” Norris said — has more taped ankles and pregame pep talks ahead of it in, of all places, Macomb, Illinois.
Last week Norris and Everett signed national letters of intent to play for coach Bob Nielson at Western Illinois University, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference along with Indiana State, four-time defending Division-I FCS national champion North Dakota State, and others.
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The duo helps make up a class of 24 incoming freshmen players, including two Norris and Everett are quite familiar with: ex-Pike High School receiver Rashad Medaris and former Red Devils linebacker Quentin Moon.
In other words, the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference is most assuredly in the house — that house being Hanson Field, the Leathernecks’ 16,368-seat home stadium.
It’s here Norris, the Daily Journal’s 2014 Player of the Year after rushing for 1,829 yards and 26 touchdowns this past season, looks to bust loose for a Western Illinois offense that graduates its leading ground gainer, 5-foot-8 tailback J.C. Baker.
Amazingly, Western Illinois is the only program that offered Norris, who also churned out 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior, a scholarship.
“I feel real thankful to them. It’s a blessing,” said Norris, who ran for a career-high 336 yards on only 15 carries in a 49-31 romp against Lawrence Central in Week 6 (his season-high number of carries was 20 three weeks later against Cathedral).
“I’m going in there to prove to everyone who ever doubted me that I can excel at the next level,” Norris added. “It’s proving to myself and to my family that I can do this.”
Everett, who is considered young for his grade — he turns 18 on April 10 — is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound defensive end who as a senior specialized in forcing opposing offenses into negative yardage with 10 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
He and Norris will room together at Western Illinois at least through their freshman year.
“I’ll be playing defensive end, which I’m very excited about because our defenses are very similar,” Everett said. “The 4-3 (scheme) is the obvious similarity, but coach (defensive coordinator Brian) Ward is very aggressive, and that’s how we are at Center Grove.”
Other schools that courted Everett were the University of Indianapolis, Marian University and the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne.
Norris had been leaning toward becoming a Leatherneck for some time. Everett became convinced when he took his official visit to the campus Jan. 24 and 25, along with his parents and sister.
“What they recruited me on is they knew I worked hard on every play and were really excited about my footwork,” Everett said.
Western Illinois is not a program known to shy away from the big stage. The Leathernecks played at Wisconsin and Northwestern during the 2014 season and battled through road tests at Minnesota and UNLV the year before that.
Next season’s 11 regular-season games include back-to-back trips to Illinois (Sept. 12) and Coastal Carolina (Sept. 19).
Western Illinois football has an unimpressive 14-32 record (.304) over the past four seasons. However, the program has made progress in Nielson’s first two seasons, going 4-8 in 2013 and 5-7 this past fall.
Western Illinois boasts an impressive list of football alums, including former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, one-time Miami Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox and current San Diego Chargers punter Mike Scifres.
“It’s a place that if you talk to their coaches they’re just a player or two away from being an unbelievable team,” Moore said. “All their coaches want to be there and have an interest in being champions.”
It’s what Norris and Everett want, too.
“I’m honestly looking forward to playing football with so many goal-oriented guys,” Norris said. “I feel it will make me a better football player and a better person.”
Weight: 215 pounds
Family: Parents, Chris and Caroline; sister, Kendall, 8
Favorite football memory: “Last year when we beat Carmel for the Copper Kettle. That was also the first game I started.”
Your best game: “Against Warren Central this season. That just really set the tone for my senior season.”
Weight: 220 pounds
Family: Parents, David and Debbie; sister, Madison, 20
Favorite football memory: “Probably beating Cathedral this season. I’ve always heard they are one of the greatest programs ever, and we beat them.”
Your best game: “It was LC (Lawrence Central). At that time our whole team played as a unit. It’s when we really realized, ‘You know, we can do this.'”