ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It was important for all the participants in Thursday night's Under Armour All-America Game to perform well. They all wanted to show off against their peers on national television.
But to one player, it was more important.
Chris Casher didn't play a down of football during his senior season this past fall. Instead, he watched from the sidelines and worked in the classroom. Casher, who transferred from Mobile (Ala.) Faith Academy to Mobile Davidson High School last summer, had to get things squared away with the books. That meant no football for the nation's No. 3 defensive end.
"It hit me hard when we were driving over and I saw the dome," Casher said of the UA Game's venue, Tropicana Field. "I told Mario [Edwards] earlier, this is my only game of the year. It's personal to me. I don't want it to be lost. I want to play well and win in a great fashion."
Casher, indeed, has something to be proud of, as he helped the White team to a 49-16 win. He didn't lead the team in tackles or sacks, but he played, and played well.
"I had to have a good game," Casher said afterward. "This was it for me. And I think I did have a good game. And of course, you always think you could have played better."
It started Sunday, the first day of practice at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in nearby Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It had been several long months since Casher had suited up, and there were doubts in his own mind about how he would perform through the week.
"My mindset was just do what you can," Casher said Thursday. "Play with the fundamentals I was taught and play with my athleticism. That's what I was thinking coming in. But after the first couple of plays I was surprising myself and I thought I did well. I just need to get back in the groove."
Casher's position coach for the game was Scott Early from Lexington, S.C. Early couldn't believe that Casher hadn't played a down of football this season.
"Wow. That kid is really good," Early said. "Casher came out here and really transitioned well. He really has a skill set and I couldn't believe the condition he was in. I was really impressed he hasn't played football in a year. The most impressive thing outside of his measurables is that this kid is so coachable and hungry to learn. He wants to improve as a player."
'I am feeling it'
No one here had played football for a few weeks, as their seasons ended somewhere between Thanksgiving and mid-December. But Casher was different. He had to get his legs back more so than most.
"I am feeling it," Casher said after Monday's practice. "My body is sore. I have to get used to this banging, but I will be all right. That's the thing about football, and we all have to go through it. Fortunately for me, I have been doing everything I can to get ready for this game. Of course there's nothing that can really prepare you for this but to play."
Casher is committed to Florida State, and he got to play alongside future teammates, defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr. (St. Petersburg, Fla./Catholic) and Edwards (Denton, Texas/Billy Ryan). Fowler said you would never know Casher hadn't played in a while.
"That's the thing about him," Fowler said. "He's such an athlete. Chris just picked up where he left off. He has showed why he deserves to be out here."
Tuesday was much the same for Casher, while Wednesday was a light practice. With game day on Thursday, he was anxious to play for real.
"It's tomorrow and I am so excited," Casher said Wednesday. "I am ready. I feel good. My body is a little sore, but no more than anyone else here. Tomorrow is big for me and I think this game is more important to me than anyone else here. I want to prove I belong. I want my only game as a senior to be special. It will be special for me."
And game day finally happened for Casher as a senior. He finished the game with two tackles. More importantly, he got to play on high school football's biggest stage.
"I can't really sit here and explain to you about how I feel, to get back there on [the] field and play in this game," Casher said. "It was amazing. I felt better after I bumped out there. But I honestly felt great. I was in shape and felt quicker and faster."
Casher even got a taste of a big hit, though he didn't deliver it. While chasing the opposing quarterback he was blindsided by an offensive lineman. So he will be taking home more than just memories.
"I was hungry and wanted that QB bad," Casher said. "They were getting rid of the ball fast. I was rushing and he got flushed to my side. I wasn't looking for the blind side, and someone caught me and caught me good. I just got the wind knocked out of me."
Casher, 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds, might feel a little bruised Friday, but he can be proud of what he accomplished in his senior season. It was a life lesson learned.
"To know what I went through, it was tough. It was really tough, man," Casher said. "It's so hard on you when something is taken away from you that you love. I had to sit on the sideline and watch my teammates win and watch my teammates lose. It was so hard, and something I had to learn to deal with.
"But I can look back on this game and this week and know I've got everything I set out for. Now it's time to go home, keep hitting the books and train. I have to get ready to play ball for the Florida State Seminoles."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.