Thirty-five years after scoring his last touchdown for Sugar Land (Texas) High, running back Ken Hall swept into the heart of a teenager 220 miles away. Justin Sadler of Devine, Texas, doesn't remember where he first read of Hall's exploits --
"No way," Sadler thought, "anyone ever breaks one of that guy's records."
On a chilly, windswept Saturday night in Sinton, Texas, Sadler finally changed his tune. More than two decades after being mesmerized by Hall's stats, he watched his son, Joseph, bulldoze Hall's single-season scoring mark during Devine (Texas) High's Class 3A playoff victory over Wharton (Texas) High. He needed five points to tie Hall's record of 395. He scored 50: seven touchdowns, six extra-points and a two-point conversion.
Joseph Sadler's performance was remarkable. A running back, cornerback, kicker and punter, he rushed for 394 yards on 41 carries, had three receptions for 49 yards, two tackles, a recovered fumble and a bevy of bone-rattling blocks. He outscored the Tigers by himself, with the only non-Sadler score coming on a 56-yard fumble return by sophomore Pat Mares. After the game, his father stood at the foot of Pirate Stadium, awash in disbelief. "All I can say is wow," he mustered.
Joseph Sadler is small-town star with big-time numbers. On the streets of Devine, a Central Texas town with a population of 4,300, he stands out with red hair, freckles and a blonde-haired, cheerleader girlfriend. On the field, he stands out with 3,680 rushing yards and 57 touchdowns for the undefeated (13-0) Warhorses. He leads the nation in rushing despite missing the second half of six blowout victories.
Here's the kicker: Though coaches from TCU, SMU Texas Tech and Texas A&M have called to express interest -- and Missouri has sent letters addressing him as a "Future Tiger" -- no one has officially offered Sadler a scholarship. "People don't believe how good he is until they see him," said Devine mayor Bill Herring, who graduated from Devine in 1965.
Sadler runs in shadow -- strong, shifty and largely unknown outside of a town that bills itself "The Avocado Capital of Central Texas." He can turn the corner and blow past high school secondaries, as he did on an 83-yard sideline sprint against Wharton. But his size (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and speed (4.55 in the 40) aren't overwhelming for a potential BCS tailback.
The bigger problem may be that his name isn't Johnathan Gray, the acclaimed running back from Aledo, Texas. Gray's
Put another way: Gray sits atop national recruiting lists. Sadler's name can't even be found at the bottom.
No problem. No one cares for attention less than Sadler. When a television crew from San Antonio -- 35 miles northeast of Devine -- visited, he made sure that "the best story" got interviewed. He referred reporters to Case Frieda, a fullback and linebacker who overcame cancer in eighth grade. When a second crew arrived, Sadler attempted to hide before his red hair betrayed him. "Dad," Joseph confided, "I'm almost scared to walk out of school because everyone wants a comment."
His postgame interviews are selfless, with Sadler giving praise to his offensive line and quarterback. Occasionally, he'll throw in a mangled cliché, as he did when referencing Mares's fumble return for a score against Wharton. "That was the dagger in the coffin, or however that goes," he said.
Sadler -- simply and efficiently -- goes about his business. He gives the rest of his attention to his family and community.
Sadler roots run deep in Devine, consisting of three miles of farmland and open fields. Seven generations of Sadlers have lived there since the mid-19th century, begetting an impressive football lineage. Joseph's grandfather, "Corky" (Class of '68), started the tradition by playing wide receiver. Justin ('90) starred at middle linebacker, while Joseph's older brother, Jacob ('10), played quarterback. For almost as long as residents of Devine can remember, there's been a Sadler on the roster.
That doesn't mean Joseph is given preferential treatment. When Sadler overslept and missed church last year, Justin made his son haul hay. Coach Chad Quisenberry -- further embracing the town's tight-knit mentality -- forced him to miss the first quarter of the next week's game as punishment.
"God and family come first," said Justin. "If [Joseph] can't make the time to go to church, he can't have time to play football."
During his first carry in the second quarter, he galloped 60 yards for a touchdown.
There's no stopping him. Against Wharton, he scored on carries of 83, 37, 24 and 10 yards. He also rumbled into the end zone from six, five and one yard out. He starts in one direction, cuts back, and eludes linebackers and safeties en route to a touchdown. Opponents know what to expect -- Sadler left, Sadler middle, Sadler right -- and still get ripped apart.
His greatness transcends the gridiron: Sadler is also a member of the baseball, track, powerlifting and golf teams. He has cemented status as a local hero. "He's the Jim Thorpe of Devine," said Quisenberry.
On Saturday night, beneath the lights at Pirate Stadium, the ghost of a different legend loomed. More than 60 years after he set 17 national records, Ken Hall's name boomed over the public address system. Sadler snapped his scoring mark with a 1-yard run early in the first quarter and the fans -- many who arrived nearly 10 hours earlier -- erupted en masse. By the end of the night, Sadler had moved to within 13 points of the national scoring mark (453) set by Sheridan (Ind.) High's Brett Law in 1988.
More importantly, the Texas books now read: Sadler 440, Hall 395.
Sadler is also approaching another once-untouchable Texas record, Hall's 4,045-yard single-season rushing mark. At his current pace of 283 per game, Sadler would finish with 4,246 -- if Devine can reach the state championship, something that's never happened in the program's 90-year history. It would be another achievement in a sparkling career, one far too often overlooked by media and Division-I scouts alike.
Following Saturday's game, however, all that became an afterthought. Joseph savored the present, posing for pictures, signing autographs and granting a few appreciative interviews. He embraced his girlfriend, Ashtyn Dougherty, and spun her around. A few feet away, Justin's world was spinning, too.
A record that would never be broken lay in pieces. As his father pondered the impossible, Sadler walked over and gave his father a hug. Justin's eyes turned red and wet. Seven generations of Sadlers couldn't have scripted it better: In tiny Sinton, 130 miles from home, the moment was Devine.