Current Tyrone quarterback Denver Light is about a month-and-a-half away from joining the pantheon of great Golden Eagle quarterbacks. Think about this: Light missed two games to injury as a sophomore and switched positions seven games into his junior season, and the chances are good that he’s still going to finish as Tyrone’s second-leading passer in terms of yardage.
Light has thrown for more than 500 yards already in 2018, bringing him close to 2,700 for his career, about 700 behind Leonard Wilson in the two-spot.
Now consider this: of all of the players who have held that position since 1994, the year John Franco began a football revolution in Tyrone, Light may be the least likely candidate to be placed among the best signal-callers in school history.
That’s not a knock. The kid is a legitimate Division I athlete with incredible strength and drive. Instead, it’s more a reflection on the caliber of players who have filled the quarterback role in the last quarter century.
If you follow the chain, it’s easy to see how the Golden Eagles could win 10 District titles in 20 years and obliterate offensive records like some kind of habit. It began with Jarrod Anderson in 1994 and was passed on to Matt Sharer, and then Brandon Hoover, then Tyler Mertiff, then Leonard Wilson, then Tyler Golden, then Levi Reihart, then Stevie Franco, then Erik Wagner, then Garret Hunter, then Drew Hunter, and now Light (with four games of Parker Mitchell sprinkled in in 2017). Every one of those passers did incredible things. Eight of them led their teams to District championship games; six of them won it. All of them threw for more than 1,000 yards at least once; five of them reached the figure on two occasions.
It’s an incredible list, but unlike many positions on the All-Time team where choosing a top guy plus a couple runners-up seems like splitting hairs, the best quarterback at Tyrone is clear-cut: it’s Stevie Franco.
In his three-year career as a starter, Franco set records that may not be touched for generations. He is the only quarterback at Tyrone to throw for 1,000 yards in a season three times, passing for almost 2,600 yards in 2011 alone; he threw more touchdown passes that any other Golden Eagle quarterback (64); and he finished his career with more than 6,000 passing yards.
All this from a player who wasn’t even a starter heading into his sophomore season.
In 2009, Levi Reihart was the slated starter, and there was little wonder why. As a junior he had passed for nearly 1,500 yards and led the Eagles to the District 6 semifinals. But in the season opener against Bellwood-Antis it was clear the Eagles were going to need some help at running back. Christian Getz was a sophomore and would eventually emerge as one of the best all-around backs in school history, but in early 2009 Tyrone was lacking a premier, go-to back.
The running game continued to flounder the next week at home against Huntingdon, so on the second series John Franco took a huge gamble, inserted Stevie at quarterback and moved Reihart to tailback.
On his first pass, Stevie hit Nick Patton in stride for a 50-yard touchdown pass. That is how legends are made.
Stevie finished that game completing 8 of 12 passes for 227 yards, and his career was officially in the fast lane. He ended his sophomore season with 1,513 passing yards, which at the time was second only to Tyler Mertiff. As a junior he threw for 1,962 yards.
Beyond numbers, Franco had a precise understanding of the game and individual game plans through his consummate study of film. His father John called him a film junky who watched almost as much game tape as John, himself, did. And it was more than his father taking note: Stevie was the AP’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2011, when he helped guide Tyrone to a PIAA title game in Hershey against Lancaster Catholic. He was named all-Mountain League twice, and he was initially signed to a Division I scholarship by Akron before later transferring to IUP.
Stevie was also a competitor, with some of his best performances coming in Tyrone’s biggest games. During the Golden Eagles’ run to Hershey in 2011, the combination of Stevie and Nick Patton destroyed Richland in the District 6 finals and then Hickory in the PIAA quarterfinals a week later. In the PIAA semifinals against Aliquippa he passed for 171 yards and caught a touchdown pass from JD Dorminy.
That postseason, Stevie completed 62 of 118 passes for 947 yards and 11 touchdowns. For some players, that’s an outstanding senior season. For Franco, it was a six-game clip that emphasized why he is the greatest passer to play at Tyrone.
Above all, Franco was a winner. His teams went a combined 36-5 and played in the District title game three straight seasons. No quarterback at Tyrone has more wins as a starter.
But it’s 2018, and you’ve got to have more than one quarterback to round out the roster. As the lineage above demonstrates, there are many to choose from at Tyrone, and it’s the new era that holds sway. Tom Miller ran an uptempo offense in the 1960s and called his own plays. He later went on to play at Colorado State, but he doesn’t make this list. Barry Anderson was an all-state quarterback in the early 1970s, but like Miller he is not on the list either. Call them victims of their time. They were brilliant athletes and talented leaders who played in eras when passing was not a priority, so while it’s quite possible and even likely they could have produced numbers like the Franco-era guys if put in the right situation, the fact is we will never know.
What we do know is there are at least two other players in the conversation of the best quarterbacks at Tyrone. The first is Leonard Wilson. Remember Wilson? The guy who held all of those passing records before Franco came along? He had a career similar in many ways to Franco because he wasn’t the Game One starter his sophomore season either. But once he warmed into that spot there was no question he would be calling signals at Tyrone for a long time.
Wilson definitely has the numbers to merit the nod. He completed 54 percent of his passes for 3,482 yards and threw 34 touchdown passes in his career. In three seasons he threw only 12 interceptions, and seven of those came when he was a sophomore. He also ran for 642 yards and 13 touchdowns.
And like Franco, he was a winner, graduating as one of only three quarterbacks to lead teams to multiple District titles (2003 and 2004).
Finally, Tyler Mertiff, while not as decorated as Franco and Wilson in terms of postseason success, is a top three talent. He started for only two seasons, and yet by the time he played his final game in 2002 Mertiff had leap-frogged Jarrod Anderson to become the school’s all-time passing yardage leader with 2,900 yards.
Mertiff’s numbers are more impressive when you consider that his two seasons as a starter were the only true rebuilding years during Coach Franco’s tenure. Tyrone was 5-5 in 2001 and 7-4 in 2002, seasons just after the state championship runs of 1996 and 1999 and just before the dominance of the mid-2000s, when Tyrone would win 35 straight regular season games. The cupboard of talent wasn’t completely bare in those seasons, but it was nowhere near what it was for Wilson and Stevie Franco. Mertiff is the only quarterback at Tyrone to produce 1,000-yard passing seasons without a complimentary 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield. In only one season – 2002 when Tommy Crowl emerged as a downfield target – did he have more than one true threat at his disposable in the receiving corps.
Mertiff passed for 1,305 yards as a junior and followed that up with 1,595 yards as a senior. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and more than 500 rushing yards. And while his teams never reached the level of success of his immediate predecessor or his immediate successor, they were one play away in both 2001 and 2002 from upset wins over Forest Hills and spots in the District 6 championship.
This blog is about the great stories in the history of Tyrone football, and one of those is the narrative of one-hit wonders – players who had one season to make it or break it, and they knocked it out of the park.
Quarterback is a position where many of those players emerge, so here are a few who didn’t make the top three, but only because their body of work didn’t quite match up with those who did.
- Tyler Golden is one star who burned exceptionally bright for just a single season, and his abilities in a way emphasized just how good Wilson was because he backed him up for two seasons before finally getting his shot in 2006. While Golden may have only started 13 games, what he did in those games was incredible. As a senior, he completed 79 of 142 passes for 1,476 yards and 14 touchdowns, along the way leading Tyrone back to the District 6 championship game, where the Eagles lost to Bishop McCort.
Golden might not have had the wheels of Leonard Wilson or the football acumen of Stevie Franco, but he was a gunslinger and a fierce competitor who went on to start as a freshman at Lock Haven before switching college sports to baseball.
- If you ask those players who were a part of the program in or around the time Matt Sharer was playing, they will tell you he may be the best athlete ever to come out of Tyrone. If you look at his work on the football field, and consider he was doing it for three seasons against the best Pennsylvania had to offer, it’s hard to argue. He’s still the program leader in career and single-season interceptions, and he led the team in receiving in 1996, when it went 13-1 and played in the PIAA 2A championship. He was also awarded first-team All-State honors as a defensive back in 1996 and 1997.
But Sharer was always a quarterback by trade, and in 1997, after Jarrod Anderson had graduated, he got his one and only shot.
He didn’t disappoint.
That season, Sharer was Tim Tebow before anyone knew who Tim Tebow was. He was Charlie Ward. He was Cam Newton. He was unstoppable.
Leading one of the top offenses in school history, Sharer completed 75 of 136 passes for 1,327 yards. He threw 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Sharer also ran for 650 yards and nine more scores, finishing as the third-leading rusher on a team that included Mark Wyland and Jesse Jones. Who knows what Sharer could have done with three seasons as a starter, but that again is a reflection of the talent in the program in the 1990s – if a guy like Sharer couldn’t get a rep behind Jarrod Anderson, how good must Anderson have been?
- For two years before becoming a starter in 2015, coaches at Tyrone would talk about Drew Hunter saying he was neck-and-neck with the starter, just a hair away from taking the job. But there was always something that kept him in a reserve role, and often the word used was “confidence.”
But by 2015 everyone was confident the Eagles had no other choice. Hunter was going to be the starter, and he was going to follow his cousin Garrett, who in his one season as a starter had led Tyrone to a District title in 2014.
To be clear, it was never a question of whether or not Drew had the chops, but it’s doubtful anyone could have foreseen what came next.
In his third game as a starter, he completed 16 of 24 passes for 340 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Huntingdon, giving him Tyrone’s single-game passing yardage record. By season’s end, he had become only the second player in program history to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
The other was Stevie Franco.
Hunter completed 106 of 191 passes in 2015 for 2,090 yards. He threw 23 touchdowns and was intercepted just six times.
That’s a nice season for a kid who may not have completely believed in himself until the time came when he had no other choice but to sink or swim.
NEXT WEEK: top running backs of all time.