Before every football contest for Springfield Central since the ninth grade, Shawn Lockett has closed his eyes during the playing of the National Anthem and said a little prayer to himself -- "Just be with me, big guy," he'll whisper.
Then he looks up above, pounds his chest and points to the sky.
"I know he's watching down on me," says the senior co-captain and two-way lineman. "When the 'Star-Spangled Banner' starts, I just close my eyes, get in the zone and talk to the big man upstairs."
The "big man upstairs" in question is his childhood mentor, Steven Karpelss, who died of a heart attack in 2008. Karppels began coaching Lockett as a fifth-grader with the Wilbraham Falcons Pop Warner program, and was a father figure to him off the field as well. To this day, the life lessons brought on by Karpells remain a fixture in Lockett's world, as well as the powerful bull-rush technique that has made him one of the state's most dangerous pass rushers.
"I wasn’t the smartest player [growing up] but I was one of the biggest, and he molded me at younger age," Lockett recalls. "He was mainly my mentor, a father figure on the field and off the field. He'd keep me in line with my grades, at home, and obviously on the football field. He's one of those coaches who'll fight for you, he's right there with you, just such a passionate coach.
"It took a big toll on me when he died. It was like, 'You're leaving -- what do I do without you?' I've been dedicating every game to him since the ninth grade, and that's gonna continue this year. He's just always been there for me."
The 6-foot-1, 325-pound Lockett, a preseason ESPNBoston All-State selection at defensive tackle, is a load to handle at times. He defers credit to Central head coach Valdamar Brower (himself a former All-Conference defensive end at UMass) when asked about his development, saying "He really molded me into what you guys see today."
Brower, though, defers to the late Karpells.
"[Karpells] really helped Shawn understand the basics of football," Brower said. "Senior year he's just been building on that. He also just loves the game so much."
Lockett's constant prayers are the latest tools of inspiration for an emotional program that never seems to be short on motivating factors.
After coming within a field goal of beating Longmeadow in the 2010 Division 1 West Super Bowl, and getting blown out by the same Lancers in last year's D1 West Bowl at Gillette Stadium, the Golden Eagles are looking to get over the hump and make good on a potential third attempt. To do that, they'll have to find a way to replace 2,000-yard rusher Sacoy Malone, a 2011 ESPN Boston All-State selection who currently plays at the University of Maine. They'll also want to avoid another 0-2 start, as they did last season against intra-city rival Putnam and Everett, the latter ESPNBoston.com's No. 1 team in its statewide poll since October 2010.
Senior Aaron Owens figures to take over the lead role at tailback, after serving as Malone's blocking fullback last fall. And while he doesn't present the same burst of speed as the fleet-footed Malone, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Owens brings plenty of versatility.
"He can do anything, he's a bright kid," Brower said. "He'd be able to do any kind of set you can imagine -- two tight, two back, single back, he's a pretty diverse player. He's a very bright kid, knows multiple positions, he's gonna be on the field a lot. No matter what kind of back, he can do it all, at both the running back position and fullback position. He's a very versatie back who can catch the ball in the backfield, he's pretty good at that."
Supporting Owens in the backfield will be T.J. Smith, a two-year starter at free safety who Brower will seek out as a third-down option. Tyler Pinkham, Louis Ortiz and Marcal Davis will also be in the mix, as well as newcomer Troy Morrow, who's moved back to Springfield after spending the last two years living in Florida.
"I thought he was a Florida pretty boy," Brower joked of Morrow. "But he's been doing some great things on the field, so I'm a take that back and say he's trying to get his North groove back."
At quarterback, 6-foot-2 junior Cody Williams is back under center with a year more experience, and a little bit of spunk. A classic drop-back passer with quality arm strength and accuracy, his competitive nature has won over many of his peers within the program. But with spunk, Brower notes, comes the responsibility to stay focused and take a leadership role.
"He's an emotional guy, and I'm an emotional guy," Brower said. "I try to check my emotions, but I'm very similar to Cody, and I'm kinda asking him to do the same kind of thing. When things go wrong, he's gotta be in control, we'll play another down, there's not one play that's going to make or break the season. He definitely loves the game."
Lockett gained attention in the Eastern part of the state last season with his impressive performance in the Eagles' loss to Everett, holding his own against the state's best offensive line and even dropping quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso for a sack. Used mostly in the interior, Lockett consistenly demonstrated a powerful bull-rush and filled multiple gaps when asked to, registering 31 tackles and four sacks. Lockett says he has heard from Division 1 programs as high as Vanderbilt, Boston College and UConn, but at this point any college interest is just due diligence.
This season, in Brower's 50 defensive front, look for Lockett to be placed anywhere along the line of scrimmage, from tackle to tackle.
"Shawn's gonna play all three down positions," Brower said. "Anywhere five-technique to five-technique, tackle to tackle and everything in between. We're gonna move him around a lot. He's played a lot of nose, we're gonna do some of that, but he'll line up in different places,
"He's a very versatile big man. He's gotten great at getting off the ball, uses his hands well, he's a very good fundamental football player."
And in a program that always seems to find new methods of inspiration, Lockett never has to look far. All he has to do is look up.
SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL AT A GLANCE
2011: 10-3, lost in Division 1 West Super Bowl
Coach: Valdamar Brower (5th year, 28-19 overall)
Key Returnees: Shawn Lockett, Sr. OT/DL, 6-1, 325 lbs.; Cody Williams, Jr. QB/P, 6-2, 165 lbs.; Aaron Owens, Sr. RB/LB, 5-10, 200 lbs.; Ishmael Figueroa, Sr. OG/DL, 5-11, 245 lbs.; Travis Cusson, Sr. CB/WR, 5-8, 165 lbs.; Adrian Filson, Sr. OL/DL, 6-0, 235 lbs.; Stephon Jenkins, Sr. ATH, 5-11, 180 lbs.; Stefen Maldonato, Sr. OC/DL, 5-9, 225 lbs.; Bryan Rivas, Sr. CB/WR, 5-7, 150 lbs.; T.J. Smith, Sr. WR/S, 5-7, 150 lbs.; Juwan Williams, Jr. WR/K, 5-7, 180 lbs.
Outlook: The Golden Eagles have made great strides since Brower assumed the head coaching position, but after coming up short in the last two Division 1 West Super Bowls they are looking for that final push over the hump. To get there, it starts with Lockett in the middle, where he has begun to make a name for himself as one of the state's better pure bull-rushers. Williams figures to be more polished in his second year under center, after showing promise last year, but the biggest hole to fill is at tailback in former All-Stater Sacoy Malone. Owens is the assumed apparent, and while he doesn't have quite the speed of Malone, but is a quality all-around back who brings a unique element to the passing game. The Eagles would like to avoid another 0-2 start, but looking at their schedule that might be wishful thinking. They open up as usual with their traditional intra-city rival, No. 23 Putnam, followed by No. 1 Everett, which boasts one of the nation's heaviest lines at nearly 318 pounds across. Still, with a veteran lineup and sound defense, the Eagles are a favorite to qualify for a third straight Division 1 Super Bowl.