Mount Rainier’s Terrell Grier and Edwin Armstead have never witnessed an eight-man football game.
“Never heard of it,” Armstead said.
“I’ve played seven-on-seven, but never even seen eight-man,” Grier said.
You can understand their skepticism when they learned J.J. Young would be their quarterback this season.
Young went to Shorewood Christian last year, but it didn’t have a football team. So he played at Seattle Lutheran, a 1B school that plays eight-man football. He led the team in rushing with 1,421 yards (17.5 per carry) and receiving with 631 yards (22.5 per catch).
Now he’s at Class 4A Mount Rainier, and playing quarterback instead of everywhere else.
The Rams are 3-0 and are one win shy of matching their win total from the previous six seasons — combined. And that’s partly because Young completes this offense.
Mount Rainier is averaging 27.3 points through its first three games. It averaged 14.6 last season.
“It’s a lot more exciting in 4A,” said Young. “Just the atmosphere and the fans — there are a lot more fans. It’s a lot more fun.
“The first snap of my first game, I fumbled it. I was like ‘Oh, this is actually real now. A lot more people coming at me.’ ”
Number of wins Mount Rainier had in the previous six seasons — combined. The Rams are 3-0 to start this year’s season. They were 0-10 in 2010 and 2013 and 1-9 in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015.
Armstead, a senior running back, missed the second half of last season with a leg injury. He’s back to full health.
And now teams can’t simply key on Grier, an athletic 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver who catches just about every jump ball his way.
“Having playmakers in multiple positions — we haven’t had that before,” Mount Rainier coach Tremain Mack said.
But there was certainly more to this turnaround than adding a dual-threat 1B football player.
Last year, Mount Rainier was missing about 15 kids at the start of the season because of grades, Mack said.
So he implemented an offseason system. Players who don’t have at least at 2.5 GPA (the WIAA academic eligibility threshold is a 2.0) need to undergo an academic improvement plan, developed by Mack, the player, parents and teachers.
This year? It was four players who were out because of grades, Mack said.
But there was more.
Mack sees his own childhood in some of his players. Personal adversities, broken homes, broken families — so he started something he calls “The Barbershop.”
About once a week he meets with select players — not everyone knows about it — and asks them a question: What is heavy on your heart?
They write their answer on an index card, but leave their name off.
“It can be good, but most of the time it’s not good,” Mack said. “One time it was ‘I hate my dad.’ A lot of things like that.
“Kids cry, kids laugh — it’s a place they can go and know that whatever is in that room is not going anywhere else.”
I’ve had nothing, and I’ve had enough money to be able to buy anything in the store. I’ve had tragedies happen to me, I’ve gone through personal problems, myself, that I’ve had to overcome. I understand what the kids go through. So I take it to heart to take some of the burden off of them and put it on myself, because I understand how to deal with it.
Mount Rainier football coach Tremain Mack
For most of the players, Mack relates.
He’s gone seven months without electricity growing up in Tyler, Texas, his cousin was killed while he was in high school, and he was once sentenced to 356 days in jail for violating probation on an alcohol-related offense.
He’s also been on the other side — starring at the University of Miami, playing on the same defenses as Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round of the 1997 draft — after being drafted by the Kansas City Royals for baseball after high school — and played in the 1999 Pro Bowl as a return specialist.
“I’ve had nothing, and I’ve had enough money to be able to buy anything in the store,” Mack said. “I’ve had tragedies happen to me, I’ve gone through personal problems, myself, that I’ve had to overcome. I understand what the kids go through. So I take it to heart to take some of the burden off of them and put it on myself, because I understand how to deal with it.”
And he understood change at Mount Rainier would be a slow process, not overnight. And that it would require some 18-hour work days and starting their Thursday night unity dinners after a 5 p.m. study hall. They have themes of the week — last week’s was “How will you respond?”
“He knows each and every one of these players on a personal level,” Mount Rainier offensive coordinator Steve Fenton said.
Mack’s coaching style reflects the way he was coached — with most of it coming from mentor and friend Chuck Pagano. The Indianapolis Colts coach was Mack’s defensive backs coach at the University of Miami.
“I love that guy,” Mack said. “When I played for him, I knew his wife and his kids, and we’d hang out. He would be hard on me sometimes but then he’d joke with me. It’s the same way I am with these kids. It’s the way I was coached by him.
“I care. I just care. And not just about you on the football field, but what you are going to do in life and beyond here.”
I care. I just care. And not just about you on the football field, but what you are going to do in life and beyond here.
Mount Rainier football coach Tremain Mack
Mount Rainier hadn’t won more than one game in a year since the 2009 season.
“We had athletes last year and previous years. But the attitude and the listening skills weren’t there,” Armstead said. “Coach is a guy who has shown you can start with nothing and still have great things in your life.”
Said Grier: “People understand now that we can do this. Everyone is hopping on board and that where we are now is nowhere near where we are going to be later on this season.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
A DOWN DECADE
The Mount Rainier High School football team is 3-0 and one win away from matching its combined win total from the previous six seasons. With coach Tremain Mack, a former Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl kick returner who is in his fifth season as Mount Rainier’s coach, here’s a look at what the Rams have endured the past 10 years: