For many, Barry Sanders is a highlight, a blur of a running back who was one of the best ever to play the game.
Yet, Josh Compton saw him up close and personal, and saw what made him what he was.
He saw the same from his father, Mike Compton, who used the same philosophy of hard work and determination to enjoy a long NFL career, opening holes for Sanders for the Detroit Lions, and later winning a pair of Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.
Observing athletes who made it to the top of their profession provided Compton with lessons that will carry on throughout his life.
“Probably hard work, that if you want something you have got to work for it,” said Josh Compton, a standout football and baseball player, and student at Richlands High School. “Nothing in life comes easy, but growing up in that lifestyle and being able to be around some of the greatest players ever to play the game like Barry Sanders, not many people get to experience that, and go to Super Bowls.
“It is just something you can really learn from. It is something that has helped me with my hard work and setting my goals high.”
Compton reached one of his goals on Friday, signing a letter of intent to continue to play football and further his education at Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II school in Hickory, N.C., which claimed the South Atlantic Conference championship last season.
“Ever since I was little and you being here for the older guys, I was like ‘Wow, that is going to be me one day’,” said Compton, who became the third Richlands football player to sign scholarships this year, joining Devon Johnson (Marshall) and Josh Hess (Richmond). “You always cherish the day when you can sign for a scholarship and just get a chance to play football at the next level.
“That the thing that means the most to me, and getting an education.”
Lenoir-Rhyne was one of several choices for Compton, who was an All-Southwest District and Region IV first team honoree last season as a defensive back in his only season playing for the Blue Tornado.
“I picked Lenoir-Rhyne because when I went down there on my visit I felt like it was place where I could be even if I wasn’t playing football,” said Compton, during a ceremony attended by family, coaches and friends in the school library. “They have great facilities, their program is on the rise, their campus is nice and coaches seem to great and the players, it seems like it’s going to be a good place.”
He chose the Bears over Virginia-Wise, Shepherd and Bluefield College, which is where is father is now an offensive line coach for the reborn Rams’ football program.
“I went out and visited other places, but some reason when I went to Lenoir-Rhyne it just felt like a good place to be,” Compton said. “It felt like I would fit in there. There is not a lot of students there so I would have a good teacher-student ratio so it just felt like a good place to go.”
While Bluefield College was a tempting proposition, Compton decided to go in his own direction.
“It was (tempting), I could stay close to home and stuff like that, but I just figured Lenoir-Rhyne would give me a good chance to get playing time at the position I want to play for a good football team,” said Compton, who expects to play outside linebacker for the Bears.
He has been approached about playing baseball at the next level, but football has been his lifelong dream.
“I have thought about it a lot...but ever since I was little it has been my dream to go and play football at the college level and the NFL,” Compton said. “I would think football is the right choice for me.”
A native of Richlands, Compton spent much of his youth around the Richlands program, even serving as a ball boy for the Blue Tornado football team. He moved from Richlands as a freshman when his father got the head coaching position at Patrick Henry in Glade Spring.
He was an All-Hogoheegee District and All-Region C performer in three sports for the Rebels, including football, baseball and golf. He also hit the books, and it showed in his grades.
“I transferred my freshman year and that did me a lot of good, I know we were not the best football team there, but it helped out with my academics a lot,” Compton said. “I left there with a 3.92 GPA and then coming back here and playing with a group of guys that were determined to win and wanted the state championship ring.
“We worked our butt off all summer and it’s just great to be around that group of guys and have the opportunity to play with this team.”
Compton was able to spend just one season playing football at Richlands, but helped the Blue Tornado to an 11-1 record, an SWD championship and a Region IV runner-up finish.
“I was excited (to come back),” Compton. “I still lived in Richlands so I still talked to a lot of the guys, I was happy to be back, I was excited to come back and get back with guys I grew up with. The baseball team, I had played with since T-ball and to finally get to play with them, it just felt really good.”
Richlands’ head coach Greg Mance was glad to have him back. Compton became the leader on a secondary that had four new starters, while also playing some wide receiver and serving as a talented long snapper on special teams.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to coach this young man. When we found out he was coming back there were a lot of people in Richlands extremely happy,” Mance said. “One, because we were getting a great athlete and a great football player, but we were also getting a great person, a great leader in the locker room.
“You couldn’t ask for a better person. He is there every day early, he has a great attitude, he works his hind end off, he is in the weight room, he does whatever you ask him to do.
“He is one of the smartest football players I have ever coached. That says a lot about him. There is no doubt he is going to be successful at the next level.”
And, not just on the football field. Compton listened his father, Mike, who was an All-America offensive lineman — and Academic All-American — at West Virginia and enjoyed a long career in the NFL. Through it all, Compton preached education to his children, which also includes Jessica, who is a senior at WVU, and Sarah, who is a junior at Richlands.
“For me as a head coach, it was having somebody like my son playing for me, not only what he brought to the athletic field as a player, but the sheer honor of watching your son further develop as a young man, as a football player and also seeing him do well in class,” Mike Compton said. “He really excelled academically, to see something like that as a parent just does your heart good.
“He knows as well as all my kids do that it is academics first with them. Football is a very short window of opportunity and you have got to have something you can do the rest of your life that you can enjoy, believe me, you are developing a career, not a job.”
No wonder Compton — who isn’t sure what his major will be — is focused on his future away from the football field.
“That is something that my dad has always stressed big time, it is academics first and then athletics,” Compton said. “He is always a person where no matter what you have got to make sure you have got your grades in check.
“That is the great thing about being at Patrick Henry. He was there to stay on me all the time no matter what, if I missed an assignment, he knew, he knew before I knew where my grades were at so he was always on me there and that helped keep my grades pretty good.”
For that Mike Compton is proud.
“I am very excited for him to go on to Lenoir-Rhyne, I know he will work hard,” Compton said. “I am just proud as his former head coach and as his father to see a young man be able to go on to the next level and have an opportunity to continue his football career and get his education.”
—Contact Brian Woodson