Three seasons ago, West senior Ezra Reiners was part of a group of sophomores brought up to the varsity to shore up the West High football team and gain experience for better days.
Reiners was about 142 pounds soaking wet, but he was a tough kid with a personality fit for a physically demanding sport. He managed to stand out. Three seasons later, he helped lead the Trojans to an undefeated regular season and a 10-1 record overall. He earned MVC Mississippi Division player of the year honors.
Reiners is the Press-Citizen’s defensive player of the year, but you could just say he’s the football player of the year considering his makeup and versatility.
“He’s a spark plug on both sides of the ball,” West coach Brian Sauser said. “The mentality he brings to everyone around him on both sides of the ball is what we’ll miss the most. Great players elevate the play of the kids around them, and that’s what he certainly did on both sides of the ball, especially this year.”
He was pretty much drafted by Sauser as the main running back this year even though he’d been a slot receiver as a sophomore and played quarterback as a freshman. All Reiners did was rush for 1,075 yards in 124 carries (8.7 per carry) with 14 touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown.
“What he did a really good job of is he understood how the blocks were supposed to develop, so his timing was great,” Sauser said. “He let the block happen, hit the hole and then once he got to the second and third level, where the (defenders) were a little more his size, then he would take those guys on. He’s a tough runner, and sometimes I think his speed is underappreciated.”
On defense, he made 60 tackles, including six solo tackles for a loss and four assists and had four solo sacks. As a junior, with two broken hands, he made 102 tackles, eight solo tackles for loss and 11 assists. He made five solo sacks and had two assists on sacks.
Reiners’ hits aren’t YouTube-type blowups, but he is a sure, reliable tackler.
“I just try to fly around,” he said. “I try not to think too much during a game, just do what you see. Do your job.”
His father, former Iowa quarterback Randy Reiners, sees his son’s personality in the way he plays.
“There’s ways that people carry themselves,” he said. “You’ve got to have a lot of heart and tenacity. There are a lot of things that come out in your actions that speak for your personality.”
Ezra Reiners certainly had help. West’s linebacking corps included Jessie Peterson and Colin Baker, outstanding, productive players in their own right. The front line was much more solid than it’s been in the past.
“We had lots of talent, and everyone did their job,” Reiners said. “You didn’t see one guy who just killed everybody in tackles. It was very balanced.”
But senior year success came only after some bumps and bruises as an underclassman.
“As a sophomore, he was out there at 142 pounds, and we expected him to do the same things as a sophomore that we expected him to do as a senior,” Sauser said.
“Probably our expectations were a little too high, but we knew he was going to be a great player, and we kind of pushed him into that role early.”
“I always liked defense from when I was little,” Reiners said. “I always thought I had a nose for the ball. I wasn’t a finesse player. I liked to run around and hit things.”
That 2010 season was tough. He got hurt, but he learned. He got stronger and smarter. He gave up wrestling so he could gain strength, put on weight and be more effective.
“He became a great leader for us,” Sauser said. “I think he always saw himself as a good football player, but he evolved from a guy who was just out there (thinking), ‘I’m going to do my job and do it well,’ to a guy (thinking), ‘I’m going to do my job well, and I’m going to make sure you do yours.'”
Reiners, who had experience at a number of positions through the years, understood every player’s role on the defense and could provide immediate feedback to teammates.
“You’ve just got to play faster and smarter,” Reiners said of defense. “I like film and I like to break it down, so a lot of it had to do with what I knew so I could almost know where the play was going.”
That understanding of the game gave him a leadership role almost by default, but his personality and talent cemented that role.
“When kids are that knowledgeable about everything that goes on, kids tend to respect that and they listen,” Sauser said. “He definitely commands a presence when he starts talking.”
It seems improbable now, but Sauser and his staff were worried about this year’s senior class. While players all worked hard in the offseason and made the most of their talent, they really weren’t very vocal. It was Reiners, the pistol with the off-kilter, wry sense of humor, who finally stepped forward.
“The best thing about this year is how his leadership happened,” Sauser said.
“I don’t think he stood in the background so much as a junior, but at the same time, it’s tough to convince juniors that you need to play with that sense of urgency because there’s that one more year.
“For him this year, you really got that sense of, ‘We really need to get this done now because it’s our last shot.’ There are some guys that kids listen to and some guys that kids tune out. Ezra is one of those guys they do listen to, so we had to push him a little bit about being more vocal. He’s more of a lead by example type guy, which is great, but kids need to hear you a little bit. When he became more vocal, other kids did, too.”