Christman, Byrd seize Mr. Football awards

By Wes Holtsclaw

   NASHVILLE -- In 2001, Dane Christman and Mark Byrd were a part of the first team east of Jefferson County to play for a state football championship in the modern-day playoff system.
   Monday afternoon, they became the first players in Northeast Tennessee since 1994 to be named top players in their classification.
   For the first time in East Tennessee high school football history, two players from the same school swept both awards in their class, as the Cloudland duo took home the American General TSSAA Mr. Football awards for single-A back and lineman at the Opryland Hotel.
   "It was something you hope to have a chance to see sometime," said Cloudland head football coach Mike Lunsford. "Having one guy win was unbelievable and to have two was unreal and outstanding. It's a good day for Cloudland athletics and a very proud moment."
   No team Knoxville eastward has swept both the lineman and back category in their classification since the TSSAA began dealing out two awards per class in 1994.
   Christman beat out a tough group of linemen, including Boyd-Buchanan's Jeremy Davis and Christ Presbyterian Academy's Will Hooper, while Byrd toppled one of the state's top baseball prospects in Fayette Academy quarterback Collin Bodiford and South Pittsburg tailback Ron Cook.
   "I didn't think that I'd even be able to win it," Christman said. "I went down for a free meal and a plaque to be honest with you. It was like last year. I thought I had a small chance to win. When they called my name, I froze up."
   "It feels good," said Byrd. "It's like the Heisman of high school football. To get it with Dane and have two Cloudland people on the stage was phenomenal. Everyone was proud of us."
   It was the first time anybody east of Sevier County had won the award since 2000, when Paul Monroe took home the 5A lineman crown.
   In 1994, Sullivan South lineman Sam Haynie won the honor, while Greeneville's Dustin Moore claimed the 4A back award the previous year.
   Eric Brackens (1996) from Gatlinburg-Pittman and the Jefferson County duo of Brent and Todd Collins (1985 and 1987, respectively) are the only other takers east of Knoxville.
   It turns what was perhaps the most disappointing ending to a season in school history, a tight 31-30 loss to CAK in the first round of the playoffs, into a satisfying look back at the accomplishments of that senior class.
   "Nothing's going to change how we felt about that loss," said Lunsford. "This does bring happiness outside of a state title. I'm sure both of them would trade it, but it wasn't meant to be. But it's great to get the recognition from the people statewide."
   Said Christman: "It's a single reward and I'm glad that me and Mark got it. But we would've rather had a big award like a state championship."
   "It's great to have someone to share it with," he said. "That made it much better. And to know we were the first to win it from Cloudland is a great feeling."
   Lunsford recalled what was going through his mind during the ceremony.
   "Sitting there, I thought of how many times I had been down there and we hadn't won it. I didn't know what our chances were," he said. "When Dane was up there and they read the stats off, I knew he had a good chance because they were better than the others. They called his name and I hoped Byrd would win also."
   Byrd was happy for Christman, but didn't feel good about his chances at the back award.
   "I didn't think I was going to win," Mark said. "When Dane was called out, I was happy for him, but I thought there was no way I could win it."
   "It took them forever for them to announce it," he added. "It was building up and when they finally said my name, I was ecstatic."
   The dual win was very emotional for the coach.
   "It brought a tear or two to my eye," Lunsford said. "There is no way to express how happy I am. It's a Cloudland award. It's a team award. Without what we've done, there was no way possible for them to win."
   Both players will undoubtedly see a boost in interests from college programs compared to what they have seen already.
   "I'll play anywhere I can get a scholarship," Dane added.
   Christman, a nominee last year, had over 400 tackles in his career and led the squad this season with 142 tackles with six sacks, a pair of fumble recoveries and an interception.
   He also ran for a pair of scores from the fullback slot.
   Byrd had just over 3,000 total yards (1,482 rushing, 963 passing, 605 return) this past season with 25 rushing scores, seven throwing scores and nine touchdowns on returns.
   He also tossed in 71 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
   The other Mr. Football awards saw Lincoln County also sweep the 5-A category when Michael Edmiston (back) and Lamar Divens (lineman) won.
   Other winners includeMilan's Rod Smith (back) and Tyner's Greg Smith (lineman) in 2-A, Crockett County's Earnest Williams (back) and Ripley's Ramon Foster (lineman) in 3-A,
   Knox Central's Cassen Jackson (back) and Hillsboro's Walter Fisher (lineman) in 4-A, Battle Ground Academy's Ryan Karl (back) and Knox Catholic's Jeremy Bentley (lineman) in Division II A/AA, and Montgomery Bell's Michael Fisher (back) and Christian Brothers' Corey Mills (lineman) in Division II AAA.
   Crockett County's Alberto Diaz took the kicker of the year award.