Soldotna's running back Garrett Gardner gains yardage against Kenai earlier this month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Just because Soldotna senior running back Garrett Gardner makes it look easy doesn't mean he doesn't care.
"Everybody says I look lazy," Gardner said. "I have my lazy days, but I'm usually not lazy."
Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell said Gardner is the type of player who is so gifted that it takes a tough situation to make him look like he's laboring.
"A lot of people will look at him on the football field and say it looks like he doesn't care," Truesdell said of the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Gardner. "Every time he's been challenged, he's shown how much he cares."
As a sophomore, Gardner broke his right leg during the middle of the season but still came back and played in the small-schools state championship game, a loss to Kenai.
"He was going to heal that leg and make it work no matter what the doctor said," said Helen Aye, Gardner's mother. "He shouldn't have been playing. It hadn't healed all the way. He did it anyway and did fine."
Gardner's comeback made an impression on Truesdell.
"He showed a lot of love for the game by still showing up for practice and working his way back to play in the state championship game," Truesdell said.
As if that were not enough to show Gardner's passion for the game, as a junior he broke his wrist during the fourth game of the season. Aye said her son played the season with the injury, then had to have surgery after the season was over.
This season, Gardner has found ways to show he cares that don't involve broken bones. In a loss to Kenai at the end of the regular season, Truesdell saw a different Gardner on the field.
Gardner scored all three of Soldotna's touchdowns in the game while rushing for 196 yards and collecting 67 yards receiving. He also made 19 tackles on defense.
"I thought he had a huge game against Kenai," Truesdell said. "That was the first time I really saw him step up to the plate.
"He's always effortless -- it doesn't look like he's giving any effort. In that game, it looked like he was giving effort."
Gardner continued stepping up to the plate in Saturday's win over Eielson in the semifinals of the state small-schools playoffs. He carried the ball 33 times for 226 yards and four touchdowns. He also set the tone for Soldotna's defense with an interception in the first quarter.
Heading into Saturday's showdown with Kenai for the small-schools state championship, Gardner now has 1,432 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing and 180 yards and two touchdowns receiving.
"He's an unbelievably naturally gifted running back," Truesdell said. "To me, he's one of the most gifted runners in the state, even with the big schools we have played.
"He not only has great vision, but he has great speed. I don't think there is anybody as fast as he is in small-schools football."
Gardner and his brothers have always enjoyed football. Neil Gardner is a 2004 graduate of Soldotna who played football, while Bryce Gardner is a promising freshman in the SoHi program.
"They got football gear from the JC Penney catalog," Aye said. "They'd always play together out in the yard."
Garrett Gardner started playing organized football in the fifth grade with the Pop Warner program and immediately started to excel at running back.
"I was good from the get-go," Gardner said. "It came naturally to me."
Gardner has all the physical tools needed to be a good running back. Not only is he fast, but he is strong as well.
"I'm in the weight room in the summer and I don't see him in the weight room," Truesdell said. "Yet when he's out there running sprints with his shirt off, you can't tell the difference between him and kids that are in the weight room."
Aye said there is some weight equipment at home that Gardner works out on, but Gardner said there is something else at play.
"It's just genes, I guess," he said.
Aye is quick to point out that it takes more than speed and strength to make a good football player.
"He's got the brains behind it," she said. "He knows what the plays are, and how to execute or stop them before they advance."
This season, Truesdell said Gardner has put together the final piece of the puzzle by becoming a good leader.
"I feel like he has matured a lot in the last six months," Truesdell said. "He's blossomed into a leader this year.
"Part of the question before the season for the coaching staff was, 'Did we have enough leaders this year?' He's helped us take care of that.'"
Aye said Garrett learned a lot from watching how Neil handled his senior year.
"He had his older brother as a leader last year, and this year it's his turn," Aye said.
Gardner also plays soccer for the Stars. He made varsity as a junior, but said he enjoys football more because he can hit people.
The senior also gets the job done in the classroom, earning all A's and B's. He said he would like to attend Boise State University next year.
"He's got great work ethic," Aye said. "He's very dependable if you need something done. If you get a commitment from him, he'll pull his own. He's not a rider, he's a leader."
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