K'Hari Lane, late arriving, at his team's pep rally.
On the family room mantle in K'Hari's home, in plain sight when you walk through the front door, is a picture of him wearing an astronaut suit with an orange Clemson paw print on the left shoulder. The photo, a keepsake from his visit to the school last spring, is one of many football artifacts in the room.
Look closer, however, and one small but meaningful flaw comes into focus. The name tag on the front of the suit does not read "K'Hari Lane." It reads "Trey Brown," his teammate and visiting partner for the weekend. Mother and son keep the photographic reminder front and center regardless.
To the right of the image is a glass trophy case that can no longer hold all of K'Hari's accolades. Krista Hudson, K'Hari's mother, fetches a five-foot tall trophy from his room and begins to dust it. "Nobody ever knows how big your appetite is for whatever you desire in this world unless you go out there and show them," she says. "He's done that. He's proven himself."
Hudson gave birth to K'Hari while she was still in high school and has raised him as a single parent. In search of a stable job to support her son, Hudson went to work as a corrections officer at Macon State Prison in nearby Oglethorpe. She worked nights until K'Hari was 13. When she would leave for the evening, K'Hari's grandmother would take over. Once he hit his teenage years, however, Hudson switched to the day shift. She felt an obligation to be home at night once her son began the slow climb to adulthood.
Long before those years, Hudson knew her son had a deep love for football. It was the way he threw passes to himself in their backyard—heaving the ball upward as high and far as possible and running underneath to catch it just in time. Occasionally, she joined in.
Some kids, Hudson says, need a favorite stuffed animal to sleep with at night. K'Hari "needed his football for his comfort."
Backyard moments eventually became more structured. Because her son was bigger than his classmates, he began his football career by playing nose guard. Then his coaches watched him throw.
K'Hari's excess weight was a concern as he adapted to the quarterback position. To help her son, Hudson stopped stocking the house with soda and sweets. "I may make some sweet tea on Sundays," she says. "But that's about it."
As a freshman, Lane was named Macon County's starting quarterback under former head coach Larry Harold. But it was not until Copeland was named head coach heading into his junior year that Lane was given an opportunity to throw the ball more than he ever had before. He took full advantage, throwing for 3,156 yards and 30 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, setting the stage for his historic senior season.
Locally, as his interception-less streak grew, life changed for Lane. The football-obsessed town buzzed louder each week, wondering how long it would last. Watson's and Mason’s names began to surface more as the record became a possibility.
With this local attention came the expectation that interest outside the community would soon follow. But the scholarship offers didn’t pour in. Neither did the phone calls from coaches or the request for official visits.
"We talk every day," Hudson says. "My main focus is that he keeps his grades where they need to be. I've told him that we're just going to keep our faith. I just tell him to continue to stay humble. And that he is. He is a humble kid."
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In the past decade, town handyman Roy Yoder has employed two of Georgia's most prolific football players. First, it was Roquan Smith. In 2015, he was Scout.com's No. 1-rated middle linebacker. He signed with Georgia and this past fall led the Bulldogs in tackles.
A Macon County product, Smith still has a large presence around town. Plastered near the high school's trophy case is a newspaper clipping of a smiling Smith with arms crossed. The headline of the article reads, "Small town, big moment."
Beyond being an exceptional talent, Smith could dig one heck of a well. That's what Yoder will always remember and appreciate about him. "That kid loved to play in the mud," he says.
Smith would do wind sprints after school. Once he was done, he and Yoder would do whatever the day demanded. When it was time to leave Montezuma for Athens, Smith gave Yoder a suggestion: Hire the quarterback.
And so, in the summer or on holiday breaks or even Saturday mornings the day after a game, his body still sore from the night before, Lane arrives to work at 8 o’clock sharp and waits for Yoder's orders.
K'Hari Lane working at Yoder's workshop.
The work varies, but it is mostly physical labor. At Yoder's shop a few miles from the high school, Lane spends hours cutting PVC pipe for future wells. Lane has cut so many pipes over the past few years that the ground on the shop floor is buried in white dust.
When he's not cutting pipe, Lane will drive a truck to pick up parts. He'll put in electrical outlets and sockets around town. He'll move wayward cows off roads and back to where they need to be. He'll shovel manure if he has to.
He'll do whatever the boss asks, all for $10 an hour so he can buy enough food to feed his dog, pay his cellphone bill and hopefully tuck away a few bucks for college.
"I didn't know what to think of him to begin with," Yoder says with a smile. "But he turned out pretty good."
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The power goes out in the gymnasium at 12:05 p.m., and the star quarterback of the state championship team is nowhere to be found.
The parade that was supposed to guide the football team through the streets of Montezuma on this Saturday morning—a celebration of its dream season—has been consolidated into a pep rally inside the school due to bad weather. The skies outside darken and quickly open up.
With tornadoes in the area, the pep rally moves briskly. Each player is introduced, starting with Lane, although he is not around to hear the mild applause. The stands are not full, but the showing is admirable given what’s going on outside.
"Yes, I'm a big ol' quarterback, but watch me throw."
— K'HARI LANE
After taking the SAT with a few of his classmates that morning, he is late to arrive. He has decided to take the exam, after already taking the ACT, to make himself more appealing to colleges. He uses his own money to pay for it.
As the rally nears an end, Lane emerges through the gym's back doors. No standing ovation for the state's all-time touchdown passing leader. No dramatic entrance. By this time, much of the rally has already dissolved as the weather worsens.
Not long after he enters, a small child holding a mini-football engages Lane in a game of catch. As his coaches and teammates leave, Lane and the boy throw the football back and forth until the gym is almost completely empty.
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In the days and months to come, after signing day has passed, those close to the quarterback will continue to spread the word about him any way they can. Not because he's asked them to, but because they choose to.
"There is still some hope," says Copeland, who has a fresh list of 75 emails on his desk from college coaches he needs to contact.
Lineman Christian Meadows, Lane's primary pass protector, is doing his part. Meadows is comfortable with his commitment to Florida State, but he still hears an onslaught of pitches from other major programs. When he can, he uses his contacts to push Lane forward.
"I've sent his film and stats out to coaches," Meadows says. "I'm trying to help him the best way that I can. I think it's coming."
The plan now is to listen to every offer. He is not without options. His football career will continue in some capacity. The level is still to be determined. But he's in no rush to finalize this yet.
"We had a situation like this five years ago when an undersized quarterback put up big numbers, but no one wanted him, except for Eastern Washington," Scout.com's National Director of Recruiting Brandon Huffman says. "Then Vernon Adams became the thorn in the side of a number of Pac-12 teams. Lane could end up that same way, having to go to an FCS school to prove it."
As he waits, Lane will continue to cut PVC and shovel manure. He will focus on his grades; his mother will make sure of that. He will go on recruiting visits. He will continue to hone his craft, throwing to his wide receivers a few times each week.
His body will not suddenly evolve into what college coaches seek. This is who he is; this is all that he has accomplished. Those interested in seeing it up close know where he is and how to find him.
"I can only control what I can control," Lane says. "I come from a small town where there is nothing but football, and I love it. I am going to come in and work. I love to compete. I enjoy school. And I am a winner."
Although the rally was anticlimactic, the day is not a total loss. His coach's cellphone continues to buzz throughout the morning as thunder rattles the building. One particular inquiry piques his interest.
It's a prominent Big Ten school requesting film of his star quarterback.
Maybe this is the one.