April 20, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria’s Tracy Sprinkle is trying to turn tragedy into triumph

A teenager isn’t often forced to experience the lowest of life’s lows followed by the highest of life’s highs within a matter of months. But such was the case for Elyria senior Tracy Sprinkle.

Sprinkle’s world was shattered in December when his older brother Jamelro Hicks was shot and killed during an argument in Cleveland.

“It was a huge devastation,” Sprinkle said “It’s a tough thing, it’s still something I’m dealing with. I think about him daily, and I know my family does, too. I try not to think about it too much because I might just break down.”

It’s a rare glimpse into the pain Sprinkle manages to keep hidden from those who know him best. He manages to stay upbeat while playing video games with friends, tweeting to the universe and delivering punishing hits on the football field.

Those hits are what helped the defensive end earn that high point — a scholarship offer from Urban Meyer to play for Ohio State.

“It was pretty exciting because growing up I was always a big Ohio State fan,” Sprinkle said. “When I first talked to them it was with the former staff, with (Coach Jim) Tressel. Then the new staff came on, and I was pretty excited when they called me and said they were still interested in me.”

He gave his oral commitment in April.

A dream come true. Four months after his greatest nightmare.

Getting started

Sprinkle was born in Cleveland and moved to Elyria when he was 5 years old. He is the youngest of eight boys, and he also has five sisters.

Growing up on a football team, it wasn’t surprising that he eventually began playing. It allowed him to get out of the house and away from the beatings his brothers passed down like secondhand clothes.

“I got ’em from everybody,” Sprinkle said with a smile. “That’s how we made each other tough. My childhood was a little rough here and there, but my mom always kept us in sports no matter what.”

Sprinkle played in the peewee leagues in Elyria when he was in the first grade. The league pitted kids against each other from first through fourth grade.

“The first time I put on pads, it was not good,” Sprinkle said. “I was playing against fourth-graders and I was really young, really small. I didn’t want to do it that much but I stuck with it.”

Sprinkle began to see improvement in his play around third grade and continued to get better as the years rolled on, building into what he thought was a stellar junior high career at Westwood.

“When I got older and actually started playing, that’s when I knew it was going to be my game,” said Sprinkle, who also took up basketball in junior high. “I got better just with time, getting used to being on the field, getting used to being with my players and getting coached by some great coaches.

“We had great coaches growing up, and they motivated me every day.”

Time to sparkle

Elyria offensive line coach Steve Hamilton was one of the coaches that knew Sprinkle in junior high.

While Sprinkle was feeling unstoppable, especially after a growth spurt helped him go from “chunky” to formidable, Hamilton knew his skills were still raw and he lacked the strength he’d need to be a top performer for the Pioneers.

“He’s one of those kids that gets in the weight room and works really hard,” Hamilton said of the 6-foot-5, 260-pounder. “He’s a 365-pound bencher. He’s a 450-pound squatter. He’s done the things that he’s needed to do in the weight room to get better and become a Division I player.”

But Sprinkle isn’t just size, strength and speed — he runs a 4.75 in the 40-yard dash. Most of those who watch him daily believe his motor is what sets him apart.

“He works hard all the time and never stops,” Pioneers defensive line coach Anthony Quinn said. “He never stops, he never takes plays off. He keeps consistent and keeps working. I think his work ethic is one of the main things … he works harder than most kids his age.”

Add it all together and Sprinkle has become a dominant force. He led the Pioneers with 94 tackles, and finished with eight sacks — good enough to land on the All-Ohio third team in Division I after his junior year.

“The one thing you have to say about a kid that achieves a scholarship at Ohio State is he is definitely special,” Pioneers head coach Kevin Fell said. “He has great natural ability — natural strength, natural speed — plus he’s got leadership ability.”

Being a leader

His coaches agree Sprinkle is not the kind of leader that will grab a teammate by his facemask and yell. Or the type to motivate with a pregame pep talk. The big man is a lead-by-example kind of guy.

“As soon as we see him working hard, it gets us going,” receiver Darius Noble said. “He’s a good role model for us.”

Fell calls him humble and said you’d never know Sprinkle was a special player by the way he conducts himself. But somehow the players feed off the energy he brings to the field.

“When you’re in the game and it’s fourth-and-inches, he’s the guy who gets you hyped up,” linebacker Zack Woodings said. “On the football field, there’s no stopping him. He’s like a whole different person when he’s off the football field.”

That’s when Sprinkle hangs out with the guys — playing Madden on his Xbox 360, talking football or keeping them all laughing with his easy sense of humor.

“He’s a funny guy, he always keeps a smile on your face,” Woodings said. “You never have your head down when you’re with him.”

A lot of that wit is seen in Sprinkle’s Twitter feed, where the gentle giant is allowed to let his personality shine through.

Staying social

The big man has joined a growing group of athletes who share their on- and off-field experiences with fans through social media. Sprinkle stays active on Facebook and Twitter, tweeting 15-20 times a day.

“It’s a good thing that guys can work through,” Sprinkle said. “You can keep in communication (with coaches and schools) without anyone having to call you.

“As far as watching your words, I really wouldn’t tweet anything bad — I’m not that type of guy. I wouldn’t want anyone to look at me in a bad way. I just try to keep it as positive as I can.”

Sprinkle said his follower count jumped from 250 to 700 within two days of his commitment to the Buckeyes. He’s nearing 1,200.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I looked up a couple players that are at Ohio State now and they have followers through the roof. I see at Ohio State the fans really love their players, and that’s a good thing.”

Like many coaches, Fell has added social media to the long list of things he needs to worry about.

“It’s not really been a problem, it’s just a pain,” Fell said. “Twitter is really, because you get guys without thinking, they’ll say things that pop into their heads.

“I do not Twitter. All my coaches probably do, but I don’t have the time.”

Sprinkle’s makeup allows Fell to relax a bit.

“I know he’s pretty active that way,” Fell said. “If there’s a guy on this team that I would say, ‘Go ahead and Twitter,’ he’d be the guy. I wouldn’t worry about him.”

Saving the streak

Sprinkle is the fifth straight Elyria lineman to earn a Division I scholarship, starting when Greg Davison went to Ohio in 2009. Then came Isaiah Byler to Bowling Green, Chase Farris to Ohio State and Tad France to Kent State.

“My first year, I went up against all those guys,” Sprinkle said. “I looked up to them because I knew they were going to Division I and that was my dream. So I worked hard against them — making me better, making them better — and after that I just took off on my own.”

Farris, who will again be teammates with Sprinkle at Ohio State, remembers those days banging heads.

“He was already developed … he was a sophomore but he already had a varsity body,” Farris said. “He was ready.”

The run of scholarships has become a feather in the cap of the Pioneers and their coaching staff. They agree that once the string of offers began, it became easier to keep going.

“It’s a brotherhood — you have a group of linemen and we do the dirty work on the field,” said Hamilton, who was an offensive lineman at Toledo. “You get the older kids who teach the younger kids, and it repeats itself. They take them under their wing and do what they need to do to get the job done.”

It’s a run they don’t want to end anytime soon.

“We have kids with the size and ability that we could have a couple more years with kids going to big D-I schools,” Quinn said. “That’s one thing that Elyria has, we’ve got some big boys. As long as they keep working and keep striving for that, I think that’s going to be a trend here in Elyria.”

Eyeing the Bucks

The solid junior season was enough for Ohio State to offer a scholarship. Sprinkle finished with 13 offers, including Arkansas, Michigan State and Penn State.

The fit seemed perfect for Meyer, who won a pair of national championships with a lean, fast Florida Gators team.

“I see his type of player is going to come more into play at Ohio State,” Fell said. “Those are the kinds of guys that Urban Meyer is looking at. Tracy’s got that outside burst that the pass rushers in the NFL have … they’re lean, fast guys.”

Sprinkle is so excited about playing for the Buckeyes, he plans on graduating from Elyria in January and enrolling at Ohio State in time for spring practices. Farris has also fed him information about the school and the transition from high school.

“He’ll fit right in down here,” Farris said. “It definitely took me back (to my recruiting days), and I just wanted to make sure that he made all the moves I didn’t make. I made sure to tell him what I’d do if I could go back and do things different.

“But it’ll definitely be cool having someone else down here repping the city.”

One more year

Sprinkle will be representing Elyria directly for one more season, and he hopes for a fantastic finish.

“I’m expecting big things,” he said. “Elyria High hasn’t been in the playoffs in seven years. That’s our main goal right now, to make it to Week 11. Then when we make it to Week 11, we want to work hard and make it deep into the playoffs.”

The optimism continues to flow from Sprinkle, despite the tumultuous year. The loss of his brother has actually become a source of energy when he needs to dig deep.

“Every time I’m lifting, working out or am on the field, I usually just close my eyes and try to talk to him,” Sprinkle said. “Then I just go straight to it, because it just urges me to do better and keep working hard and never quit.

“I plan on dedicating every down and every play and every step on the field to him.”

The tragedy added to a passion that has always consumed him. It’s another shining example of a kid that could have been crippled by grief turning into a man by dealing with the devastation and trying to turn it into a positive.

That’s why there will always be a twinkle in the eyes of Tracy Sprinkle.

Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or sbennett@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.