The hit, the photo, and a lasting legend: The untold story of LeBron James’ last HS football game
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HANOVER, Ohio —  Corby Baughman knows it’s coming any day now. 

Baughman will see the picture. Baughman’s high school teammate and co-worker Michael Hinger might post that picture on the break-room wall, restroom door or on Baughman’s locker at a local distribution company in Newark, Ohio.

“I don’t know how to say it any other way,” Baughman said while fighting back a contagious laugh. “Michael still likes to bring it up a lot with that picture.”

That picture was captured by Kevin Graff, a photographer for The Newark Advocate, during an Ohio High School Division IV football state semifinal between Licking Valley and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary on Nov. 24, 2001.

Baughman, a 5-8 cornerback for Licking Valley, appears to be flipping a receiver over his back. That receiver is a 6-8 junior named LeBron James. It’s the image that defined the Panthers’ 37-13 victory against the Irish at Arlin Field in Mansfield, Ohio.

That picture framed James’ last catch in a high school football uniform. That picture hung on the wall at a local Applebee’s. That picture still is shared on phones and high school message boards 20 years later. So, Hinger, the quarterback of that Licking Valley team, prints out that picture every November and pens a five-word message for Baughman.

“Just a kid from Hanover.”

Baughman laughs at the thought. For 20 years, Baughman has tried to set the record straight. Did he light LeBron up on the football field?

“Obviously a lot of people love the picture,” Baughman said. “But I always tell them, ‘You watch the film and the picture looks a lot better than what actually happened.'”

James, a four-time NBA champion and four-time NBA MVP, remains the subject of countless what-ifs had he pursued a career in football. At that time, he was a two-sport phenom for the Irish. The basketball success spilled onto the football field his junior year in a deep playoff run that reached the state semifinals. 

The Irish ran into Licking Valley, the epitome of a “Friday Night Lights” meets “Varsity Blues” program. The Panthers were still chasing that first state title under Corby’s uncle Randy Baughman, who has been the head coach since 1982.

On a fortuitous chilly, rainy, windy November night, Licking Valley had its up-close encounter with King James.

“With games like that, of course over the years you know how they get,” Baughman said. “The lies get bigger every year and everything else. A lot of the guys on that team stayed in the area, and they now have kids playing in the biddy league. That’s what really makes it nice is when they can hear adults talking about beating LeBron James and know it was their dad.”

So, what really happened that night? 

*****

LeBron James was a heralded basketball prospect before he arrived at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, but the football talent was more of a curiosity. 

Former football coach Jim Meyer had no idea who James was, but it took one freshman game to find out. James quickly made the rise to a varsity receiver, and Meyer remembers the first “wow” moment against Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph’s in 1999. 

The quarterback checked at the line of scrimmage and dialed up a deep pass to James. The cornerback had a bead on the football, or so he thought.

“LeBron jumped up, caught it and held the ball over the kid’s head as the kid thought the ball was going into his arms like a punt,” Meyer said. “LeBron caught the ball and was literally looking down at him on the way down.”

Willie McGee, a high school teammate of James who is now Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary athletic director, recalled another moment later that season. Maverick Carter, one of James’ close friends to this day, was sick before the final regular-season game.

“LeBron went out and ran all of his routes,” McGee said. “He had like nine catches for 180 yards and two TDs. He should have been playing opposite Maverick the whole year.”

All of this happened before James made his debut on a highschool basketball court. Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary was 53-1 with two state titles in basketball in James’ first two seasons, but he also evolved into an All-Ohio receiver in football by his junior year.

In 2001, James had 57 receptions for 1,160 yards and 16 TDs. By then, McGee was splitting time at quarterback with Matt McDonald on a team that finished 7-3 under first-year coach Jay Brophy. James was being recruited as a blue-chip receiver at that point, even if everybody knew basketball was his future.

Still, the football highlight reel was amazing. 

“He had the football speed, the acceleration, the ability to make people miss and was a punt-return-type guy,” McGee said. “His hands were amazing. The ability to catch the ball, one hand, two hands, adjust to the ball in the air, it was uncanny.

“He could throw the ball, too,” McGee added. “You put him on a reverse, and he can throw it off that. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on a football field.”

Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary barreled through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

“Our plan was to win a state championship in football and basketball,”  McGee said. “We wanted to play in the state championship game and play in our first basketball game later that day. That was our goal back then.” 

Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary would also lose the basketball championship game that same school year to St. Bernard Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati, a well-documented upset chronicled in the book “The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron.”

The football counterpart remains a word-of-mouth account now being passed to its second generation.

*****

Ross Bishoff was the high school reporter for The Newark Advocate in 2001, and he sensed an unexpected theme in the practices leading up to the Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary matchup. The players were less worried about James and more concerned with getting Randy Baughman to his first state championship game. 

That was in Baughman’s 26th season as a head coach at Licking Valley. 

Hanover is a rural community in Southeast Ohio, and it is surprisingly easy to find. Just turn on Ohio State Route 16 a few miles after passing the Longaberger basket building, an iconic landmark that serves as a symbol of sorts for that tight-knit community. For Licking Valley, football is everything and that was validated in 2001.

The Panthers made the regional final the previous season, and they took a 13-0 record into the state semifinal against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.

“Those kids loved Randy Baughman,” Bishoff said. “The program he built, it wasn’t just like winning and excellence and those kinds of things. It was a whole persona of playing really tough backyard-style football with running the ball and great defense. All of those cliches with football, they wore them on their sleeves. It was real.”

Randy Baughman recalls the challenge of preparing for James with an undersized secondary in which Hinger was the tallest player at 6-1.

“The big thing was just trying to get our players over being in awe of going against him,” Baughman said. “When we saw him on film, it was scary how he stood out. Of course, we were going to try fancy coverages and all those things, but we could see on film that if he decided to, he could take over the game at any time.” 

Baughman didn’t tip his hand in those film sessions, however.

“He would never call a player by name,” Hinger said. “He would say things like, ‘We have to stop this receiver.’ We knew exactly who LeBron James was. We knew we had to know where he was at all times.”

Same with the coaches. T.J. Baughman, a defensive assistant, was just starting on his father’s staff. He remembers telling Randy about James the basketball star, the sellouts and the NBA future-in-waiting. Randy had a quick-quipped response.

“Well, it’s a good thing we’re not playing basketball,” he said.

Bishoff, however, and other local sports writers kept asking the same lingering question.

“The Valley people expected to win just because they were good and had a lot of confidence, but I don’t think many other people expected them to win,” he said. “We were like, ‘How are they going to cover LeBron?’ I covered him at the state tournament in basketball, so you knew he was incredible there. But when he walked out on the football field it was like, ‘Damn, Randy Moss is here.'”

The weather intervened. Arlin Field was muddy after a day-long rain, and there was wind on what was a cold, miserable night. James wore shiny gold cleats, but he was going to have some trouble showing off his speed. McGee, the Irish quarterback, knew the problem. 

“We didn’t pass well with all the wind gusts,” McGee said. “It was a rainy night. It was just one of those nights that was like, ‘Man, we got a bad draw.’ You still have to play the game.” 

*****

Hinger, Baughman, Jake Butler and Tyler Lewis were Licking Valley’s starting secondary, and Devin Fulk mixed in at nickel back. The Panthers planned to shade coverages toward James every play.  At least that was the plan. Would it work?

“You knew that even if you did everything technically sound, there was a really good chance that if the ball was thrown in his direction he would still make a play,” Fulk said.

Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary tried to get James involved early, but the quarterbacks could not connect on five first-half targets. Butler had an interception for Licking Valley on an underthrown ball, and Josh Nethers added another pick. A pair of bad punts snaps didn’t help. The Irish failed to score on their first five possessions.

Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary tried a reverse with James, but he was dropped for a loss. Nothing worked.

Licking Valley took advantage of every mistake and had a 30-0 lead at halftime.

“Trust me: At halftime, we were all shocked at what was going on,” Corby Baughman said. “But we knew that it wasn’t going to be over.” 

James became more involved in the second half. He caught a 17-yard middle screen early in the third quarter, and he slipped while trying to cut back. James then caught a red-zone touchdown over Baughman and Hinger.

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s going out of bounds,'” Fulk said. “He just jumped up and made a play on it that no other player in the state of Ohio could have made.”

Just when it looked like Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary would make it a game, Hinger came up with a third interception. Butler would add a pick six in the fourth quarter. The game was decided, but James’ last two catches are what’s remembered most by the Licking Valley players. 

James caught another pass and turned toward the sideline. That is when linebacker Rusty Redman came up with the tackle. Redman turned to say something to James, and Fulk remembers it verbatim. Redman, it turns out, was a Chicago Bulls fan. 

“We were all actively trying to jump on the pile just to be able to say we were in on the tackle on LeBron,” Fulk said. “Rusty had made the play, and he told LeBron, ‘Tell Michael Jordan I said hi.'” 

Fulk said James chuckled then went back to the huddle. In fact, Baughman said James did not say much during the game other than a few words after his touchdown. 

******

© Kevin Graff – USA TODAY Sports
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So this is the chance to set the record straight.

James’ last catch was on a deep crossing route, and Baughman was waiting near the sideline to make the hit. T.J. Baughman recalled a game earlier in the season when Corby knocked the helmet off a receiver. Licking Valley assistant coach Nate Whisner said that reputation grew as the season went on.

Would this be one of those moments?

“When he hit LeBron, everybody was expecting that big, booming hit,” Whisner said. “He went over top of him and cut right through him. That was the lasting image of that game.”

Baughman lifted James, whose gold shoes briefly flipped over his body. James fell to the grass and popped back up. Baughman said the local telecast referenced James getting the wind knocked out of him, but that wasn’t true either.

“You watch the film, and he just kind of rolls over me,” Baughman said. “I did put my helmet and shoulder pad in his gut, but I think he was fine.”

Baughman is right. James was not hurt. He would get one more target, and he finished with 13 targets, four catches and 40 yards.

“Everybody is talking about how I leveled LeBron,” Baughman said. “No, no, I didn’t level LeBron.”

The picture, however, has become more significant than the hit itself. It’s a reminder of the dominance the Panthers had that night, and the affirmation of a program that would play in the state championship the following week against Kenton and national record-setting quarterback Ben Mauk.

At the time, there was not a wild celebration in the locker room. The Panthers were simply 14-0. Over time, however, that victory has become more significant with each passing year. It was the first of Licking Valley’s three state championship appearances. 

“Not only was it memorable beating LeBron, but that was the first time it put us into the state championship game,” Randy Baughman said. “We felt pretty good beating that team of LeBron’s. Little did we know that we had Kenton, and Ben Mauk waiting for us in the state championship game. It was exciting for both reasons.”  

******

James joined the “Manning Cast” on Sept. 17 and discussed his high school career with Peyton and Eli Manning.

“I still love football to this day,” James said on the telecast. “Just getting out there playing, Friday Night Lights in high school was something I enjoyed. It was definitely challenging and tough to walk away from the game, and I still love it to this day.” 

James also confirmed that the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks offered him a contract during the NBA lockout in 2011. With that, the what-ifs have always persisted.

That comparison to Moss, a Hall of Fame receiver who played high school basketball, comes up often. James’ former coaches and teammates go there all the time.

“I think he’s a Randy Moss because of his talent,” Meyer said. “He might be better. I know it’s hard to say, but with the jumping ability, acceleration and speed, that’s why I make the analogy.”

“Off hand, I would say Randy Moss,” McGee said. “He could go get the ball at the highest point, body control, hands. If the ball was in his hands, he had the ability to make people miss and take it for six.”

“When he took off, I thought, ‘He is amazingly fast,'” Bishoff said. “He would have had the same career in the NFL that he did in the NBA. You look at what Randy Moss did. He had those skills.”

******

Around this time of year, that legendary game against LeBron James pops up as the Ohio high school playoffs get into full swing. Corby Baughman will get that reminder soon enough. He’s spent years trying to downplay “The Hit” as just a tackle, but he still laughs every time Hinger — or someone else — references the moment.

“People I work with now are quite a few years younger than me and they will say, ‘I remember going to that game,'” he said. “It’s always, ‘I was only 10 years old’ or something like that. ‘I don’t remember it a lot, but I remember watching you guys.'”

Hinger remembers that with a picture, and he’s not afraid to share it. Occasionally, Hinger sees James on TV during a NBA game and allows for another passing thought.

Does James remember that night in Mansfield?

“That’s when I think, ‘He knows who we are too,'” Hinger said. “He doesn’t know any individual or our names for nothing, but with as many accomplishments he has, the many experiences that he has had, the lifestyle that he lives that is way, way different than ours, he knows who we are, too.

“When he’s mentioned with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the best of the best, we were on the same field as him for one night,” Hinger said. “That’s just a really cool feeling.”

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