The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

August 31, 2013

Lions linebacker 'tough as boot leather'

— Gatlin Ridgway describes himself as having a “screw loose.”

However, it has been a necessary evil for the Missouri Southern linebacker who appears to play the game with no awareness of his lack of size.

“You’re always underestimated when you’re a 195-pound linebacker,” Ridgway said. “You have to have some craziness to you. You want to show them that you can play, too.”

At every level, Ridgway has shown he can play. And at every level, he has played with an edge.

“Ever since I was a kid, it was always that way,” Ridgway said.

He was named Ohio’s small division defensive player of the year his senior season at Danville High School, earned all-conference honors at Highland Community College (Miss.) and recorded 57 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, in his first season at Missouri Southern.

“Gatlin has got that ‘it’ factor,” Missouri Southern coach Daryl Daye said. “If you ask me what is ‘it,’ I can’t tell you what ‘it’ is. But he’s got ‘it.’ He’s a football player, and he’s a good football player. He’s smart, and he’s got a nose for the football. And he’s as tough as boot leather.”

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, Ridgway leads a blue collar Lions defense that graduated current Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams.

As seniors, Ridgway and defensive back Demon Haire will be the Lions’ defensive captains.

Ridgway was a three-time all-state performer at Danville High School, which is in Ohio’s smallest division.

“It was a very small school,” Ridgway said. “I graduated with 20-some kids. But the high school has a very rich tradition in winning football games and producing good football players. I got lucky enough to be one of them.”

A starter on both sides of the ball, Ridgway rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a senior. As a linebacker, he recorded 512 tackles in his career, including about 140 his senior year. He earned MVP honors in the Ohio McDonald’s all-star game.

Still, interest from colleges was moderate. Ridgway’s size and the size of his school were factors.

“I didn’t get a lot of attention, because it was a smaller school,” he said.

He did receive interest from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Findlay, but ended up attending Mississippi’s Highland Community College. There, he played linebacker and safety and finished his two-year career with 197 tackles. Ridgway was a second-team all-conference selection in 2011.

The quality of the MIAA helped draw Ridgway to Missouri Southern.

“A lot of the competition brought me here,” he said. “There are so many good teams in this conference. I loved all the staff that was here. I thought it was a good fit for me.”

Starting all 11 games for the Lions in 2012, Ridgway was fourth on the team in total tackles and second in solo tackles with 32. He also had one sack, one pass breakup, four quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.

Ridgway returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown during the Lions’ 47-20 win over South Dakota Mines.

“He’s that kind of guy you have find a place to put him on the field where ever it is, because he makes big plays,” Daye said. “And he’s a good leader, too. He’s very well respected by the team, because of his courage and toughness. And he’s also very productive.”

He’s one of seven returning starters on a defense that limited opponents to 127 rushing yards per game last season.

New defensive coordinator Wally Ake said Ridgway will be an integral part of the Lions defense, relying on his ability to cause pressure on the blitz.

“He’s just a ball player,” Ake said. “There are guys you can just throw out on the football field, and they can play ball. You want to go play pick-up football, he can go play anything.

“He’s one of those guys who’s just a ball-playing fool. He just loves it, and he’ll hit you. He’ll knock you out.”

Ridgway said he tries to balance his game with a mix of intelligence and intensity.

“There’s a lot of preparation,” he said. “You have to be a student of the game. You got to learn everything about the game. The other part is you got to have a little screw loose. You have to have a little screw loose and fly around and not be scared of anything.”

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