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Gym rat is a term commonly applied to a basketball coach’s son or daughter who spends their childhood in the gym, following dad around to practices and games.
While most kids are running around the neighborhood or playing video games after school, the gym rat is fetching water or towels for players or retrieving loose balls back to the practice field.
Whatever the catchy nickname is for football, Trey Jaco is it.
The Central Hardin senior linebacker grew up on the gridiron with his father, longtime Fort Knox coach Tom Jaco. After moving from Georgia when he was 2 years old, Jaco watched his dad coach the Eagles for 10 seasons. He was a ball boy from third through sixth grade, seeing the highs (Fort Knox went 8-4 in 2002) and the lows (the Eagles won one game from 2005-07).
“You learn a lot when you’re around it every day,” Jaco said. “You learn little things that most kids wouldn’t know. Like I knew at an early age what certain defenses were, like a 3-4 or a 4-3, and certain coverages that most kids wouldn’t know.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Jaco’s deep background has led him to this point: a key cog in the Bruins’ 3-4 defense chasing the team’s first region championship.
“It’s great to top my senior year off like this because I’ve never been this far in the playoffs,” Jaco said. “I’m talking a little junk to my dad, telling him I’m going to get as far as you did.”
While the furthest Fort Knox reached under Tom Jaco was the second round, the elder Jaco played on the 1982 squad which won a region championship before losing to Glasgow in the state semifinals.
In order for son to have bragging rights over father, Jaco and the Bruins have a little bit of work left to do. Eighth-ranked Central Hardin (11-1) plays at No. 9 Meade County (10-2) in the Class 6-A, Region 1 championship game Friday night as the Bruins are out to avenge their lone defeat this season.
It could be Jaco’s final high school game, but football seems to have a permanent spot in the Jaco family.
Trey and Tom started what they call a “stadium bucket list.” Each year, they go to a college game in another part of the country; they’ve been to Michigan and Texas A&M in the last few years and went to South Carolina this year.
“I’ve never pushed him on football,” Tom Jaco said. “I guess just being around it, he developed a love for the game and saw what a big part of my life it was for a long time. We haven’t played a lot of Madden but we’ve watched a lot football together.”
Tom’s last season at Fort Knox was 2007, but he didn’t stay out of football for long. He coached Central Hardin’s defensive line in 2010 and its linebackers in 2011 before stepping aside for Jaco’s junior season. Jaco primarily played junior varsity his sophomore year, so dad got to coach him.
Tom is still a fixture on the sidelines during games, and Trey looks to him for advice when necessary.
“I’ll have a different perspective than a position coach or defensive coordinator because I’m focused on him more than anything else rather than the big group,” Tom said. “I can talk to him about his pad level, keeping outside leverage when he has that responsibility, keeping his head on a swivel – just little things. He’s always been fundamentally strong, but occasionally I’ll see something he can improve on.”
Jaco’s impact on the Bruins goes beyond statistics. While he’s fifth on the team with 51 tackles, he’s a two-year captain (voted by his teammates) who relies on intelligence as much as physical skill.
“He has a lot of football savvy and when he puts that on the field, it translates with his body also,” Central Hardin coach Mark Perry said. “He understands a lot of the things you can’t coach and don’t have the time of day to talk about. That’s important.
“It’s a football family and you can tell by the way he plays,” he added. “He knows what it’s about and he’s a gritty player.”
Jaco plays outside linebacker where his responsibility is to watch for outside runs to his side of the field and drop into coverage. He described his role as to “keep the defense going, keep the morale high and make sure we’re not giving up.”
Never was that sort of leadership more necessary than in last week’s 32-23 victory at No. 7 McCracken County in the second round of the playoffs.
Nursing a 23-16 lead late in the second quarter, Central Hardin senior linebacker Ryan Kelly – who leads the team with 79 tackles – injured his ankle and did not return. Central Hardin, however, didn’t miss a beat as sophomore Aaron Chandler stepped in and was in on three tackles for a loss and had an interception as the Bruins’ defense pitched a shutout after the first quarter.
It’s the kind of culture Jaco and Kelly have strived to establish, and it paid off in one of the biggest wins in program history.
“My reaction when (Ryan) went down was ‘Ohhhhh crap,’” Jaco said. “But then Chandler came in and did great. It was like it didn’t even affect us. (Aaron) was ready to roll. We keep everybody ready so when it’s your time to get your number called, you’re not nervous and know what to do.”
Jaco and Kelly have been instrumental in bringing along the next great duo of Central Hardin linebackers in sophomores Seth Bryan and Dalton Parr, who have combined for 147 tackles.
“He gives (the sophomores) quite a bit of confidence when he steps out on the field,” Perry said. “He’s been there before and guys trust him, and I think they follow him.”
While Jaco admitted he started the season slow – his parents thought he played “terrible” in a season-opening win over North Hardin – he and the Bruins have gained momentum throughout the season. Central Hardin had its best regular season ever at 9-1, are the first team to earn double-digit wins in program history and advanced to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
All that’s left is to end a 14-game losing streak to Meade County.
Eventually, Jaco will have to decide whether to pursue playing football at a school like Lindsey Wilson or Campbellsville or focus on earning a degree in law enforcement in hopes of one day becoming a state trooper. Tom even suggested Jaco would make a great coach.
But whatever he does, football won’t be too far away.
Ryan O’Gara can be reached at 270-505-1754 or firstname.lastname@example.org.