Braxton Berrios wants to relish his new role for Leesville Road, yet it's difficult.
As the new starting quarterback for Leesville Road, Berrios has a chance to lead his team to a state championship. But, he is in this position because his older brother, Austin, the quarterback who led the team to an undefeated regular season, will miss the playoffs after tearing the ACL in his right knee last Friday.
Braxton is disappointed that he will never play high school football with his older brother again. But he is excited to play tonight when Leesville Road (10-0) hosts Broughton (5-5) in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA playoffs.
"It's huge," Braxton said of leading the No. 1-ranked team in the area. "There's no way to downplay it."
A receiver filling in for a quarterback. A 16-year-old sophomore replacing an 18-year-old senior. A brother hoping to finish what his sibling started. That's the mission Braxton has accepted.
"With him stepping in at quarterback in the playoffs, under the circumstances, I think he embraces the opportunity," Leesville Road coach Chad Smothers said. "He wants to lead our team because Austin can't."
Wednesday at practice, for the first time this year, Braxton was without Austin, who was at a physical therapy appointment.
Braxton knows he could have been the one missing practice for a therapy session - not Austin.
A few minutes before last Friday's game, Austin received news from his coach: He was going to return the opening kickoff.
All season, Austin had pestered Smothers, a first-year coach, to return kicks. Smothers refused, knowing he needed Austin to focus on leading the offense.
With the Cap 8 title going to the winner, Smothers felt he needed dynamic plays against Wake Forest-Rolesville, the five-time defending champion, so he relented for this game.
"I was happy to be back there for senior night," Austin said.
He gave Smothers a dynamic return to midfield, but when Austin cut toward the sideline, his right leg twisted after he planted his foot into the wet ground.
"It could have happened on any other play," Austin said. "I did everything I could to not break down."
Braxton, the one who usually returns kickoffs, was blocking on the play. He turned around when he heard his brother scream.
"Once I heard that I knew he was done for the game," Braxton said. "Seeing him go down was honestly my worse fear."
Lee Berrios, Austin and Braxton's mother, watched Austin lie motionless from the top of the stands. She has filmed every game this season, and knew something was wrong right away. When Lee Berrios was alerted to come to the sideline, she found her son with his head bowed.
Smothers first turned to Malcolm Hitchcock to play quarterback. The results were two turnovers in the first quarter.
Braxton said he expected Smothers to ask him to play quarterback in the second quarter.
"That was the best shot we had at winning the game," Braxton said. "I knew I had to do it."
He rushed for 245 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Pride to the win - and secure the starting job moving forward.
Lee Berrios wasn't shocked. She knew Braxton would take over where Austin left off. From behind her camcorder, she experienced mixed emotions that made her cry.
"My heart broke for Austin," Lee Berrios said, "but I was so proud of Braxton."
By Saturday afternoon, Austin learned he needed surgery. When he came home from the , Lee Berrios watched her sons cry as they hugged each other.
Her boys had waited 12 years to play on the same team. Now there would be no more chest bumps after wins, no more high-fives after scoring touchdowns.
"They knew this was their last year playing together," she said, crying. "But they were nowhere near ready for it to come to an end the way it did."
The brothers have worked so well together because they are so different.
Austin is a quiet leader. When he enters the huddle, he only calls the play. That's it. Lee Berrios said if you expect Austin to get in a teammate's face to pump him up, you won't see it.
You have a much better chance of seeing that with Braxton, she said. He is a guy who can't stop talking. And in a crisis like last Friday, that's exactly what his teammates needed - a vocal leader.
There are similarities about the brothers.
"I tell people they are so different outwardly, but inwardly their hearts are the same," Lee said. "They both want to win."
"We have a type of bond that you can't create with anyone else," Austin said. "Just having him be there makes it easier."
During the season, the brothers created their own hand signals to use for plays on the field. In Leesville Road's dramatic win over Wakefield, the two looked at each on two occasions. Both plays ended in touchdown passes.
Whether they are in Austin's 2008 Dodge Avenger or in their bedroom, the brothers worked together this week on tonight's game plan.
"It's difficult watching," Austin said of Braxton, who he claims is the best sophomore in the state. "It's a lot different. It will be a challenge for him, but I think he'll be ready to do it."
True to his vocal self, Braxton exuded confidence. When Will Orbin, the Pride's offensive coordinator, asked him if he had any experience at quarterback, Braxton replied with a surprise answer.
"Well, I did have experience in middle school," he said, "but I was a Pop Warner national champion quarterback before that (in fifth grade)."
Big shoes to fill
Braxton Berrios realizes that only two outcomes can come from this: The Pride rallies around him and continues to build on the best year in school history or it falls short, unable to compensate for the loss of Austin.
There's an argument for either outcome.
Braxton Berrios threw the ball over and over again in Wednesday's practice. He simulated every type of throw: fades, posts, and roll-out throws to the right and left.
While he rehearsed, tight end Brock Pyper and offensive lineman Michael Laverty watched him from 30 feet away.
"What do you think?" Pyper asked Laverty. "He looks pretty good."
"I wouldn't want to be the quarterback," Laverty responded.
"I think he'll be just fine."
"I think you're right."
The whole community is thinking about Braxton Berrios. Will Braxton lead the Pride to a successful postseason? Leesville Road, its fans and Braxton himself are about to find out.
"(Austin) always tell me we can still do it," he said. "It's hard hearing it come from him because he can't be out there, but it helps."