Marquee performer

Marquee performer

GIBSON CITY — Mitch McNutt recalls how, prior to the 2017 prep football season, his Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley teammates and him talked about the level of sacrifice they'd go through to capture a state championship.

"We said we'd break both our legs, both our arms," McNutt said. "We'd always say that stuff, and how close we are and were."

Close became complete last month as the Falcons held off Maroa-Forsyth 38-32 for the first state title in GCMS athletics history. And while McNutt took on plenty of bumps and bruises as the Falcons' leading running back, he never broke down.

That's because if there's one thing McNutt is better at than football — in which he has earned 2017 News-Gazette Player of the Year status for compiling area bests in rushing yardage and running touchdowns — it's keeping himself in tip-top shape.

It's not a recent development, either. McNutt has gunned for being the best version of himself since middle school, going above and beyond what most any high school athlete is willing to bear.

* * * 

McNutt began playing football in third grade, under the leadership of his father, Todd, in a local youth league. The younger McNutt's reputation as a physically stacked athlete had not formed just yet. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

"His first year, I talked to my wife, Amy, and said, 'I don't know if he's going to be a very tough football player,' " said Todd, one of GCMS' assistant coaches. "So I was really concerned at first."

One big issue for Mitch prior to high school was staying under a league-mandated weight limit required for running backs. He was spending time at quarterback and fullback in his early football years, but lack of conditioning eventually forced a move.

"I had to be down at right guard," Mitch said. "We won a championship when I was at fullback."

That, Todd said, was the initial moment Mitch started getting serious about his well-being.

"We told him, 'Listen, you're going to have to watch your nutrition a little bit,' " Todd said. "From then on he has taken it super seriously. It's been seven or eight years since he's had a pop. He watches all of his sugar and is almost insane about what he eats."

For Mitch, that dietary shift coincided with a different sort of self-training that would change his life for the better.

* * * 

When Mitch was in fifth grade, he visited Dr. Tim Leonard at his chiropractic office in Gibson City along with his sister and two of his cousins. The University of Illinois athletic training graduate, who had worked with Illini football, basketball, wrestling and tennis athletes, was beginning operation of a performance center from his small building.

Mitch & Co. were Leonard's first subjects in this new venture.

"He always wanted to break records and was asking what records were for this and that," Leonard said. "I knew he was going to do great things. There was no doubt in my mind he would be an unstoppable force."

Leonard's performance-enhancement operation focuses not only on improving athletes' strengths and weaknesses, but also such aspects as functional training, mobility, general strength and footwork.

Leonard said he jokes with Mitch about the latter not being able to lift a 45-pound bench press bar when he first started training. Now, Leonard said, Mitch's only weakness is "he can't jump rope forward."

"Physically, he's so developed, he's so strong and so functionally strong," Leonard said. "His body really changed. He got it through hard work and consistency."

Mitch still works with Leonard at the Gibson Area Hospital, in addition to training with GCMS assistant Brandon Luttrell and putting in time on his own. That equals four to five workouts a day, some starting as early as 4 or 5 a.m.

And that has had an impact on the young athlete beyond altering his appearance.

"Honestly, my favorite thing to do in life is work out," said Mitch, who hopes to get into powerlifting as he ages. "When I was getting bigger, I'd go to football camps and test my speed, and that gives me confidence like, 'I might be an all right running back.' "

* * * 

The road to being GCMS' lead backfield option wasn't without detours, though. Coach Mike Allen's squad was riding the efforts of Nick Meunier, who compiled 656 rushing yards as a junior and 1,723 more as a senior, during Mitch's first two years in high school.

That was no problem for Mitch, though. He took hold of a defensive line spot as a freshman, well before moving to a linebacker role as he got older.

"That was probably my favorite thing to do," Mitch said of playing on the D-line. "I think we ran a four-man (front) ... and just using our speed against the big guys, I was like 160 pounds, just taking off and getting the edge."

That weight, previously an issue on the gridiron, now left Mitch a bit worried for a different reason.

"It's kind of a nerve-racking thing," he said. "Everybody is like 40 pounds heavier, but that just gives you more motivation to get bigger as you go."

And that's exactly what Mitch did, continuing his healthy lifestyle while attracting more Falcons to Leonard's enhancement program. Mitch was not only improving his own status on the field, but also leading his teammates to better choices as well.

Mitch took on limited fullback duties as a sophomore before piling up 1,235 rushing yards and 21 scores his junior season as a lead runner.

"Sophomore year I was behind Meunier, and just seeing him have a great season like that makes you want to be like that," Mitch said. "I was in the gym all the time, and our whole team was, and that's what made me a good running back and made our whole team good this year."

* * * 

Good doesn't begin to describe Mitch, who checked in at 6-feet, 220 pounds as GCMS began its 2017 campaign.

Though he frequently played just half of many games while the Falcons overwhelmed opponents early, he still posted 1,693 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns.

He can plow through defensive linemen straight ahead or make a cut and hit the sidelines for lengthy gains.

"He's a combination of a lot of things," Allen said. "He has great speed, he has great power, he has quick feet, good hands. He's not one-dimensional. He's not just a north-south runner. He can (run) east-west, he can run over, juke you."

Two of Mitch's favorite plays this season describe exactly those attributes his coach is talking about.

The first, a Week 5 clash against Eureka, saw Mitch cut all the way across the field before finding paydirt on the game's first offensive play. And the second, in a first-round playoff tilt with Eastland Pearl City, witnessed Mitch streak straight up the middle for another touchdown.

But some of his finest work came over the season's final two weeks, in a 2A semifinal against Sterling Newman and the title game versus Maroa-Forsyth. Mitch racked up 111 yards and the eventual game-winning score in cold, wet conditions against the Comets before generating 139 yards and three touchdowns against the Trojans.

"He ran the ball 64 times the last two games, and the most he ran the ball all season before that was 18 times, probably," Allen said. "He's a workhorse. He gets stronger as the game goes because he works his butt off in the weight room in order to stay strong."

And so Mitch's prep football career circles back to his favorite venture: working out. It's led not only to success in high school, but also a college offer from Valparaiso and preferred walk-on status at Southern Illinois. And since Mitch isn't one to toot his own horn about how far he's come athletically, his father will do it for him.

"Well, he's probably the toughest football player I know at the high school level, at least that I've ever seen," Todd said. "He's battled through all kinds of injuries here and there. He really understands his own body and knows what he needs to do to get it into shape to play at a high level."

Sections (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports