Editor’s note — This is the third in a series of three stories featuring the 2019 inductees into The Times-Gazette Highland County Athletic Hall of Fame. They will be honored at dinner/banquet, along with 56 Highland County senior student-athletes, on June 13 at the Ponderosa Banquet Center in Hillsboro. Tickets can be reserved by the public by calling 937-402-2522.
It was an autumn Friday night in Greenfield where a 1990s football contest was playing out between archrivals Hillsboro and McClain when one of visitors’ best players came to the sideline with a finger dangling precariously. It did not keep him on the sidelines long. Jake Spruell had trainers tape the dislocated finger to another finger and charged back on the field.
“Those games back then were so much fun, the stands were packed, and I wasn’t missing that for the world,” the 1997 Hillsboro High School graduate said.
Always a bit undersized for the positions he played, Spruell said he found ways to make up for what he lacked in stature.
“It was kind of like something a coach told me one time. They had faith and believed in me, and told me if I worked hard every day, good things would happen,” Spruell said. “That’s what I try to teach kids. I always tried harder than everybody. In the summer I’d be in the gym or on the field by myself. Not a lot of people saw that. I was never big into Xs and Os, it was just more like a physical thing. I always had a good ability to read a play, or the way the other team was blocking, and I just beat them to the spot.”
The hard work and smarts paid off.
Although he didn’t start wrestling until he was in junior high, Spruell qualified for the state wrestling meet twice and placed sixth in the 189-pound weight class his senior year. He was a three-time All-Southern Buckeye Conference wrestler and the SBC Wrestler of the Year as a junior.
In football, he started three years at Hillsboro as an offensive guard and defensive tackle. He earned All-Southern Buckeye Conference honors his junior and senior seasons and as a senior was honorable mention All-Ohio.
Following high school he landed at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. After playing mostly special teams the first year and a half, he got a break when his roommate and all-conference linebacker teammate went down with an injury. Spruell ended up being an All-West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference linebacker his junior and senior seasons, and led the conference in tackles as a junior.
“I guess my while career I’ve had to overcome people doubting me,” he told The Times West Virginian during his junior year in college. “In high school I played defensive line, so I tried to rely on my quickness rather than my size or strength, neither of which I have a lot of. Here it’s kind of the same thing. I guess maybe I’m not a great practice player, but games are a whole different story. In games the juices are flowing and everything, and I just want to go out there and play ball.”
Spruell said he got his start in athletics playing peewee football and baseball in Georgia. He arrived in Hillsboro as a seventh-grader and took up wrestling.
“Football was always my passion. That’s why I played in college. I wish I could have did both, but Fairmont didn’t have wrestling,” said Spruell, who now makes his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It was like the funnest time of my life, playing college football, and I want that opportunity for my kid, too.”
After his playing days, Spruell said Fairmont asked him to stay around as a coach, but he was ready to come home. He ended up being an assistant football and wrestling coach anyway, both at Hillsboro and Western Brown.
“I just wanted to give back what I know,” he said. “I wanted to pass my love for the game on to other kids, and now I want to pass it on to my kid.”
Spruell said he spends much of his time these days hauling his 12-year-old daughter to and from softball practices and games.
If it were possible to do it all over again, Spruell said he would not hesitate, but understands he has a different challenge now.
“Certainly. Knowing what you know now, it would be a lot of fun,” he said. “But that’s why we coach. We give it back to the kids.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.