Gage Graham grew up in the Stephenville tradition. His father and uncle are both in the Yellow Jackets Athletic Hall of Fame. He knows well the expectations that come with each football season in Stephenville.
“It's a winning tradition. That's just how it is. You embrace it or you don't play," he said.
Now a senior, Graham is hoping to do something his father and uncle, though legends at the school, did not do — win a state championship. And he's doing everything he can to make that happen.
Graham, 5-11 and 175 pounds, is a two-way standout for the Yellow Jackets. He's one of the state's top defensive backs (146 tackles, 101 solo, 7 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions), and is also one of the Yellow Jackets' top wide receivers (38 catches, 678 yards, 6 TD).
Graham isn't the only Yellow Jacket who has made a name for himself on both sides of the ball. Senior Blu Caylor led the team in tackles (189) and sacks (10) from his middle linebacker position last season. He also scored 15 touchdowns as a fullback.
“Those two guys are leaders, not just on defense, but for the whole team," Yellow Jackets head coach Greg Winder said.
Graham proved Winder's words true when he stepped in at wide receiver last season. As a sophomore he'd proven himself in limited action, registering 33 tackles (15 solo) in six games, so Winder figured he could count on him in a pinch.
“We got in a bind with our slot receiver and Gage came in. He had no problem in terminology or learning the plays," Winder said. "He ended up being a very smart football player."
Winder said Caylor, at 6-2 and 225 pounds, has the mindset of not only can he do it all, he wants to do it all. And who can argue with the numbers he has to back it up?
“I would take giving Blu the ball on fourth-and-1 against anybody," Winder said. "And he takes pride in his ability to run the ball, along with being a heck of a linebacker."
Both Caylor and Graham were named Class 4A all-state last season on defense by the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Texas Sports Writers Association (TSWA). Caylor was second-team TSWA and Graham third-team, while both were honorable mentions on the APSE. Caylor also garnered third-team all-state offense honors from the TSWA.
“I love hitting. It's my favorite part of the game," said Caylor, who had 114 solo tackles. "I'm kind of the commander of the defense. I know the defense like the back of my hand."
Caylor also said that while he and Graham have a plethora of solo tackles, they are helped by the confidence that should they not make the play, a plethora of other Yellow Jackets are ready.
“Our defense swarms to the ball," Caylor said. "That swarming coverage adds confidence to everybody. I know I've got 10 other guys who can also make the play. Now, I want to be the one to make the play, but it is great having them right there with me."
Graham said as long as he can be on the field, he's happy.
“I don't see one position being more special than the other. I just like being in the game," he said. "I hate coming out."
Caylor said even when he's playing offense, his mind is on making contact.
“I’m still doing some hitting," he said with a smile.
In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, even though they reached the playoffs, the Yellow Jackets were a combined 7-15 with first-round postseason losses. Like their teammates, Graham and Caylor, were determined to turn things around last season, finishing 12-3 and reaching the Class 4A Division I semifinals.
And though it was a return to greatness for the Yellow Jackets in 2017, it's not the height Graham, Caylor and the rest of the team have their sights set on.
“I’ve got goals written on my mirror, win district, go undefeated, win state," Caylor said. "And if we keep everybody healthy, we can do that."
Both want to play in college, but that's not on their minds now. They each say they are focusing on bringing a sixth state title to Stephenville.
“Not getting the job done last year, it's made us more motivated. In the offseason and all summer we worked harder than we ever have," Graham said.
“It's a new road, a new season, time to bear down," Caylor said. "Time to go get a ring."