Last fall, the Bryant Hornets football team was riding a three-game winning streak when they went to Russellville for their first 7A/6A-Central Conference game. And they fell behind the Cyclones 3-0 right off the bat. On the kickoff after the Russellville field goal, senior running back Savonte Turner, who wasn’t even returning the kick, went down, suffering a gruesome compound fracture of his leg.
It obviously shook up the Hornets who proceeded to fall behind 17-0. Though they rallied to get a field goal before halftime, they went to the break understandably a little distracted with concern for their teammate, a team leader.
“When Savonte messed his leg up, everybody’s hopes were down,” recalled Mario Waits, a three-year starter on the defensive line. “I had to keep everybody up. I was in the locker room yelling at everybody to keep everybody hyped so we could go out and finish the game.”
And finish the game, they did. In the second half, the refocused Hornets roared back to take a 20-17 lead. In the final minute, however, Russellville regained the advantage, 24-20.
What followed was one of the highlights of the season. On the ensuing kickoff, just Phillip Isom-Green and his special team cohorts produced an 88-yard touchdown return that lifted Bryant to a 27-24 victory.
On National Signing Day on Wednesday, Feb. 3, the Henderson State Reddies added a leader to their football program as Waits, the son of Marvin and Sherill Waits, officially signed to continue his education and football career at the Arkadelphia school.
Over three years as a starter, Waits was in on 160 tackles in an offense that’s designed for linebackers and safeties to make most of the stops. He had 20 tackles for losses along with seven sacks.
And don’t forget:
“I almost blocked a punt,” he added. “It’s hard for a big man to block a punt.”
At 5-9, 270, Waits was the solid middle of Bryant’s defensive line.
“Mario has such strength, a very, very strong young man,” said Bryant defensive coordinator Steve Griffith. “I think Henderson’s going to get a player that’s going to give them a solid anchor in the middle of their defense for several years to come. He gets better every day. He’s come such a long way since his 10th grade year. He has such great, great potential for them.
“We’re proud of our heritage here at Bryant,” he added. “Coach (Paul) Calley (former Hornets head coach) and (assistant) Coach (John) Wells, old Henderson Reddies, are proud to have Mario play where they came from.”
That sophomore season for Waits was when the adversity hit.
“I was going through a rough time in 10th grade,” he said. “My grades were bad. My coaches had to help me get everything up. Then I had to keep working hard in football. Once I got to my 11th-grade year, I was able to balance everything out and keep working at the same time. They helped me get here and I’m really happy I get a chance to play in college.”
“Mario is just a tremendous example of a young person that came into the program, who was on a little rocky ground, worked his tail off for three years and became a three-year starter,” Griffith added. “He came in as a sophomore in off-season and wasn’t really sure. But he embraced the program, embraced a lot of challenges we threw at them, took it to heart and became a starter as a sophomore and became one of the dominant defensive linemen in our conference and in the state this year. He and some of these other guys allowed us to be one of the best defenses around over the last three years.”
“I made brothers down there,” Waits said. “Me and Cam (Cameron Murray), Madre (Dixon) and Peyton Robertson — we were all just family down there. If we saw something wasn’t right, we worked together to fix it. I really loved playing for the defense. I really loved playing for Bryant. It’s a family here.”
Waits never really waivered once he received interest from HSU.
“They called me to come in and I got to talk to them,” he recounted. “Me and Coach (Dean) Norsworthy (recruiting coordinator) got real cool. He was like a father figure so I really felt comfortable with him. I thought maybe I could take a look and see what Henderson’s about. I fell in love with the school and the football program.
“They said if I come in and work hard I might get some playing time my freshman year.”
No one at Bryant will be surprised it that happens.