Rock Hill defensive coordinator Jason Layman lost the Bearcats’ best 2017 defensive player during the offseason.
But that player still shows up to Rock Hill practices every day, and in fact, is usually the first person to talk to the team before it heads down the hill to begin its afternoon’s work. Narii Gaither didn’t graduate high school or suffer a serious injury, or anything like that.
He switched from linebacker to running back.
Layman remembers his reaction when Bearcats coach Bubba Pittman told him Gaither would be an offensive player in 2018.
“I was like, ‘you sure about that? You sure that’s what you want to do?’” Layman said, smiling. “That’s tough, your leading tackler, region defensive player of the year, All-Area defensive player of the year. So that’s tough. But we’ve got him, he’ll be on our side when we need him.”
Rock Hill graduated its workhorse running back last season, Des Buchanan, but had a ready-made replacement in Gaither, who played the position full-time as a sophomore and some as a junior. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior is a natural with the ball, a fact anyone that’s watched him play in the last month would know. He knifed Myers Park for two touchdowns in the Football City USA Kickoff before turning Sumter’s defense to gooey fondu in last week’s 33-23 loss.
Rock Hill will need that level of play, and probably more if the Bearcats (0-1) are to prevent top-ranked South Pointe (1-0) from winning the city championship this Friday.
It’s important for the Bearcats to have “a kid that has a little moxie about him, and Narii has that,” said Pittman. “He realizes that South Pointe is a really good football team and he knows what’s over there, and he’s excited about the challenge.”
“Everything,” said Jackson. “He’s the leader of the team, plays both ways, in the weight room he’s the hardest worker for sure, just everything.”
Against Sumter, Gaither ran for 124 yards, a 30-yard TD where he looked like he was crashing through incoming waves at the beach, and another touchdown where he took a pitch and plowed through a tackler at the goal line to score. Gaither played some critical defensive snaps in the second half, too, to Layman’s delight.
The Rock Hill coaching staff’s frustration with Gaither is that college coaches aren’t harassing him 24 hours a day trying to recruit him. Pittman said that South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley told him Gaither was one of the best running backs they saw all summer. But the Gamecocks haven’t pulled the trigger on an offer. No college has, yet.
“Somebody’s gonna have to take a chance on him being just a little undersized,” said Pittman. “He has done so many things for us, on offense, on defense, they don’t really know what his specialty is. I keep telling these guys, ‘listen, he can play wherever you need him to play.’”
“He’s a dynamic player and when he’s on the field he makes a difference,” said Layman. “He’s got a talent we can’t teach, and that’s a nose for the football on defense. He finds the ball and takes the path of least resistance, and if it’s not, he’ll fight through and get there.”
Layman was talking about defense, but Gaither shows the same knack as a ball-carrier, getting through crowds, whether with vision and quick feet, or lowering the shoulder and creating a path where none exists.
Gaither’s size appears to be the primary obstacle to high-level college recruitment. He has a 3.8 grade point average and no clear negatives away from football. Newberry College and Coastal Carolina have shown some interest, but again, no offers yet.
“I just have faith in God,” said Gaither. “I know that what God has for me, is for me. I don’t force anything. I just let it come.”
Maybe his best attribute: his leadership knack. It’s not easy for a teenager to lead other teenagers. It’s not necessarily cool, definitely not always accepted by peers. But Gaither is an unquestioned alpha among the Bearcats. He’s the best player on the team, which helps, but so does rooting for his teammates when they succeed. When backup running back Noah Thompson scored a touchdown against Sumter, Gaither was among the most excited players on the sideline. People notice.
“They want to be buddies, and I think Narii has a lot of friendships and wants to be your buddy, but he leads by example so much and puts in so much work, that I think the other kids around him, when Narii talks they know where he is coming from,” said Pittman. “They respect that.”
That sort of positive peer pressure trickles down. Pittman recognized sophomore Tommy Neff after Tuesday evening’s practice for stopping to help a fellow student move a cheerleading mat through a narrow door way. The sophomore received a helmet sticker for his good deed and was recognized in front of the team. Neff was probably raised to help people in that way. But it’s a program culture fostered by Pittman and his coaches, and strengthened by kids like Gaither, that make it second nature, and not uncool or weird, for Neff to do what he did.
Gaither’s ability to rally his boys will be tested by South Pointe, which waylaid Northwestern in last week’s opener and looks as stout as ever. He said his leadership focus is on making everybody on the team “feel equal. I guess if you want to get on somebody, encourage them instead of get down on them.”
Gaither says he’s a safe driver, that he keeps his room clean. This kid is too good to be true, right? Apparently not.
“Top-notch character, great grades... he’s what you want your football program to be made of,” Pittman said. “If you could put 70 dudes out there that are like Narii Gaither, I think you’d win a lot of state championships.”