Even now, so close to the end, it seems clear that Zach Gentry’s legacy at Eldorado High School is, in an odd way, only beginning to be formed.
Sometime in the next 15 days, perhaps as early as Saturday, perhaps as late as Dec. 6, Gentry will play his final football game as the senior quarterback of the Eldorado Eagles. At which point he plans to peel away his high school burnt orange for the college burnt orange of the University of Texas.
Inescapably, Gentry finishes his career with the Eagles as the most accomplished QB in the school’s history – on a prep level. He leaves as one of Albuquerque’s most celebrated and recruited, and respected, football athletes of the last half-century.
“He’s a great teammate,” said Eldorado defensive end Tre Dunning. “Strong leader. He’s just a great player.”
During these final days with Eldorado, a question lingers:
What precisely is his legacy? Is it the myriad accomplishments of the last three years, or the possibilities of the next 10?
“His real legacy,” said former Eldorado head coach David Williams, “is what he does at the collegiate level. That’s why we’re all hopeful
that he’ll succeed at the college level. That’s the way I felt about Bobby Newcombe. If he can’t make it at the college level, then who can?”
Gentry, 18, takes the Eagles into Wilson Stadium on Saturday afternoon against Cibola in the Class 6A quarterfinals.
Eldorado (9-1) has not won a football championship in 34 years, since a guy named Jim Everett – who eventually became a starter in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams – quarterbacked the Eagles to a title in 1980.
Gentry would love to go out in that vein, too.
“I’m very determined,” Gentry said of this postseason pursuit.
As the 6-foot-7, 240-pound wunderkind takes his show 700 miles to the southeast to Austin next fall, he’ll surely be under more scrutiny than most college QBs.
To that end, Longhorn faithful have been fairly glued to his career from central Texas, following him on blogs and websites.
Gentry’s 2014 numbers are impressive: 2,231 passing yards, 21 touchdowns vs. five picks, a 61 percent completion rate.
Then sprinkle in his running stats: 904 yards and another 19 scores.
Then factor in some of his individual heroics, specifically those memorable back-to-back midseason performances against Mayfield and Cleveland.
When you consider Gentry’s physical attributes – he remains Eldorado’s fastest athlete – and his All-America persona, you have a kid who seems pre-packaged for superstardom.
“I think he’ll be a better college player than a high school player,” Eldorado coach Charlie Dotson said flatly.
Gentry’s exploits led at least one guy from Austin, Dotson said, to make the long trek to Albuquerque to watch Gentry in person. And this wasn’t really even a mainstream media member; he apparently just operated a website related to UT football.
The spotlight will shine brightly on Gentry the second he steps on the UT campus.
“I don’t absolutely love it,” Gentry admitted, looking ahead to a media glare that will be both regional and national in nature. “But it’s not like I’ll shy away from it.”
From a purely football perspective, there are challenges ahead.
Dotson said Gentry could benefit greatly from a yearlong constructive weight-room regimen, and suggested that Gentry might be better off if he didn’t play for the Longhorns until he was 20. (Gentry turns 19 next September.)
Moreover, said Cleveland head coach Heath Ridenour, himself a former college quarterback at Eastern New Mexico, Gentry will likely have to learn how to play the position under center. He’s been a shotgun QB in the Eagles’ no-huddle attack.
“That could be a knock on him,” Ridenour said, “but he’s a tremendous athlete. (But) that’s one thing he will have to address.”
Gentry can stretch any defense at this level, but it is worth noting that in the one loss Eldorado suffered in the regular season, a 17-14 setback to La Cueva, the Bears’ defense fairly suffocated Gentry.
Also, La Cueva limited Eldorado to just 34 plays that night. In the two games prior to facing the Bears, the Eagles ran 89 plays against Mayfield, a 50-49 double-overtime win, and 82 plays against Cleveland, a 57-56 thriller.
“I think he’s ready,” Ridenour said. “He’s ready to go to the next level because of his ability to stretch the field horizontally and vertically by himself. He can make any throw, and his ability to run puts you in a bind defensively. He has that ‘it’ factor, if you will.”
Gentry’s three seasons with the burnt orange have drawn the comparisons you’d expect – mostly to Newcombe, but in another way to Everett, who didn’t start at QB at Eldorado until his senior season.
It is here where judging Gentry’s prep years becomes somewhat murky. If he moves on to college and succeeds, as most everyone believes he will, and if he should someday join an NFL roster, his Eldorado years will be remembered even more favorably than they already are.
Certainly he’ll always be in the conversation when it comes to the local high school greats, just as Newcombe was when he starred at Highland at later at Nebraska. Just as Chris Williams was in his days at Rio Rancho and New Mexico State. Just as Ronnie Daniels was at La Cueva. And although Daniels flamed out of college before he really ever got started, that doesn’t diminish his record-breaking brilliance with the Bears.
“I don’t think that’s for me to decide,” Gentry said, asked his thoughts on the definition of his legacy. “That’s up to the people around me. I’ve just taken it as it’s come.”
Ironically, Gentry isn’t even the best passing QB statistically in a 30-mile radius. Rio Rancho senior Easton Bruere – who mysteriously, has hardly been recruited at all – has put up passing numbers that are superior to Gentry across the board this year.
“He’s a great athlete,” said Bruere, 6A’s leading passer. “Being 6-7, running a 4.6 (in the 40), you can’t teach that.”
Despite Bruere’s dazzling numbers (over 3,000 yards, 38 TDs, just one interception), it is Gentry who has dominated the water cooler conversations, the call-in radio talk shows, the highlight packages both in this newspaper and on local TV stations.
“Gentry is a defensive coordinator’s nightmare,” Williams said.
There is a growing contingent of fans who hope that Eldorado will face Rio Rancho during these Class 6A playoffs – if it happened, it would be next week – in order that Gentry and Bruere could square off head-to-head.
Among fellow athletes, Gentry is that rare combination: an athlete who inspires awe, a teenager who commands respect.
“He’s one of us,” Eldorado wide receiver Craig Buzzard said.
“The thing I like most about Zach is he’s just a respectful guy, so humble, never big-headed,” said La Cueva all-state linebacker Mitchell Cantwell, who’s been chasing Gentry for years, dating to when they were young football players. “Of anyone in the state, he has the right to be cocky, but I’ve never heard anything but humbleness from that guy.”
Bruere said he and Gentry have forged a friendship, one the Ram values.
“He’s a great role model,” Bruere said. “I respect Zach and how he plays, and what he does on and off the field.”
Cantwell called Gentry the most challenging individual assignment he’s faced at La Cueva, and Cantwell has stood opposite almost every stud big-school QB in his career.
“He’s probably the hardest person I’ve ever had to go up against,” Cantwell. “It’s been that way since YAFL, when he was on Highland. He was always so big and fast.”
Whatever Gentry does moving forward, his senior season will be forever stamped by those two exceptional midseason performances.
In a double-overtime win over Mayfield, Gentry accounted for 444 rushing and passing yards in the second half alone, and 547 total as the Eagles prevailed 50-49. The next week, he had 447 combined yards in an indescribably wacky 57-56 triumph over Cleveland.
“I was expecting that from Zach,” Mayfield QB Kavika Johnson said of Gentry’s mammoth season. Johnson himself has received a handful of Division I offers. “He’s always been coming up big in the clutch. It’s fun to watch him. Hopefully we match up at the next level.”
Gentry’s days in Eldorado colors might really be limited; he said this week he wasn’t sure he’d play basketball. He was an all-state post for the Eagles last season.
And while he’s not in an overly contemplative mood regarding the end of his career, he acknowledges that “it’s gonna be weird. It (football) has been a major part of my life for four years.”
The Zach Gentry era at Eldorado is nearly over.
His legacy? This may just be the beginning.