In the midst of the zenith of Mt. Zion's miraculous playoff run a year ago, Jarrell King, the Bulldogs' veteran quarterback, was jogging off the field hanging his head as he'd told his teammates never to do. Marist was ahead 21-0. King was feeling the blunt prospect of a season's end after throwing an interception.
Then offensive coordinator and now Mt. Zion head coach Jamie Aull was the first to meet King as he came back to the sideline.
"I was like, 'I love you, man,'" Aull said. "I tapped him on the head. I had to tell him that or I would have cussed him out. But I told him I loved him and I believed in him."
The remark left King momentarily puzzled.
"I thought about it," King said, "and I was like, 'I love you? We're down and he's saying I love you?' So I was like, 'We've got to make a run at this.'"
King orchestrated a remarkable comeback. Mt. Zion eventually lost 34-33, two missed extra points away from upsetting the eventual Class AAAA state runner-up. King threw four touchdown passes in the game, one remembered as much for Mt. Zion's emotional performance in the midst of Clayton County's accreditation upheaval as for Marist's victory.
And in that game a junior quarterback displayed a level of leadership that has come to define him and steer Mt. Zion (3-1) as it heads into a pivotal game against No. 8 North Clayton Friday at Southern Crescent Stadium.
King, now a senior, has found that the position of quarterback requires as much skill in leadership as it does in throwing and reading defenses.
"It's a real leadership role," King said. "The older you get the more leading you have to do. It's like being a coach and a player at the same time. You have to deal with everybody's different personalities. You just have to be a good leader inside and outside school."
Last season, King proved adept at quarterback in his first full season as the starter. Passing for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns, King was a first-team All-Southern Crescent selection.
King had shown signs of his potential early on. In the offseason of 2007, King and then starting quarterback Drexel Copeland spent early mornings throwing in the gym working on technique. Within a month, King had matched Copeland's ability. Soon enough, King had surpassed him.
"At the time I didn't put much stock into it," Aull said. "I thought, well, he's good at these drills. When he was a freshman you could tell he was a playmaker and he was a leader on the field. But as far as a passer, he wasn't very good."
Not until September 29, as Riverdale was beating Mt. Zion, 30-2, did King get his first opportunity to prove himself.
So entered King, an untested sophomore. Three touchdown passes later, the lead was just 33-30 in the third quarter.
"He's started every game since," Aull said.
With its new starting quarterback discovered, Mt. Zion oriented much of its offense last year around King. Laws regularly asked King to throw the ball 15-30 times a game, and Copeland became his favorite target as the Bulldogs went 8-5.
Now, with two dynamic running backs in Quarterrio Morgan and Josh King, the Bulldogs have resurrected its run-oriented tendencies, but King is still central to their offense. He must throw. He must make the proper reads in Mt. Zion's spread-option rushing attack.
And as always, he must lead.
"It's a lot of work," King said, "but I've always just kept it cool. Everybody just knows that I'm the leader, so everybody accepts that. Everybody plays their role, I play mine."