Kirby Southard didn’t know the quarterback he was facing in ninth grade would eventually be one of his closest teammates in college. A freshman at Chattahoochee High School in Johns Creek, Southard squared off against future Mercer quarterback John Russ, a freshman at Middle Creek High School.
Fast forward nine years later, and now Southard — Mercer’s center — said he is “closer [to Russ] than anybody else on the field.” Southard and Russ are both Day Ones, the players who showed up to the first day of practice once the program was re-established.
He was just trying to remember Russ’s name at that point.
“I was still starting to learn the type of guy John was,” Southard said. “I think we had like eight quarterbacks at the time that first day. Over the years, how the chemistry and bonding on the team has changed is unreal, especially between me and John. It’s gotten to the point now where we pretty much do the same thing on the field now.”
Five years will do that.
After the initial practice year, Russ and Southard have both been four-year starters on offense. While Russ receives more recognition, head coach Bobby Lamb said Southard has been a rock at one of the most important positions on the offense.
Lamb called the center position the ”quarterback of the offensive line” since he is responsible for making calls on the line and recognizing what kind of defense the team is facing.
“To have a guy like Kirby doing that from day one is huge,” Lamb said. “I really thought that someone would come in here and beat Kirby out; [that] has not been the case. Every time we’ve moved somebody to center, he’s stepped up and played even better. For him to do that is pretty remarkable.”
Along with Russ, Southard has been through it all: the team’s first game, its 10-2 opening season in the Pioneer League, moving to the Southern Conference, beating Chattanooga and traveling to Georgia Tech this season.
That longevity is a result of Southard’s toughness, Lamb said
“One thing about Kirby — a lot of people don’t know this — he’s had a bunch of injuries since he’s been here, but he refuses to not start a game and not finish a game,” he said. “Last year he had a torn labrum in his shoulder, and he played every game. He’d be wincing in practice, but he didn’t want to come out.”
Southard said his tenure can be attributed to his never having any “major” injuries, but he believes the development of his mental game has been vital, as well. The fifth-year senior said offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Casey Vogt aided him in gaining a better grasp on football, a skill he said has allowed him to keep his job.
“I’ve pretty much mastered what our offense is trying to do and what we’re trying to do against certain defenses,” Southard said. “I’m more like a coach on the field type deal. I can calm players down. I can tell players where to go so there’s no confusion on the offensive line.”
Over Southard’s time at Mercer, the experience allowing him to be like a coach on the field did not come without memories. Along with beating Chattanooga and playing Georgia Tech, Southard said one of his favorite memories was Mercer’s 45-42 comeback win over Jacksonville during the team’s first season.
“I’m just glad that I was able to play for so long and be a part of something special,” Southard said. “We started this program up from nothing, so I’m glad to be known as one of the players that started this program along with the rest of the Day Ones … It’s great being now one of the cornerstones and rocks of that class and really creating this tradition and this sense of this team and what we do here and how we do it.”