This isn’t your run-of-the-mill story about a diminutive football player. After all, that narrative often makes its way to the big leagues, where plenty of the smallest of the small guys “make it.”
Nay—South Forsyth flanker and unofficial big-play specialist Ronnie Chambliss is the best thing that’s happened to the thought of “why not” since the invention of the Push Pop.
He’s 5-foot-6. He weighs 113 pounds. He rocks braces in his smile, and he has no clue how to talk about himself with an ego.
He’s your defense’s worst nightmare.
Friday, as South captured its first region title since 1997 and the first in Class AAAAAA football, Chambliss had the prettiest play in the team’s most dominant win, all things considered, of the year as they stomped cross-town rival Lambert, 31-6.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Chambliss gave a little shoulder to the outside at 15 yards, looped behind the linebackers and almost left town before a Longhorn defender knew what happened. A perfect Davis Shanley pass later, and Chambliss was gone.
So has been the story for Chambliss from the time summer practice began to Friday, when Shanley gave him a shoutout with television cameras beaming over the War Eagles football team. You could tell the moment was enough to leave Chambliss’ knees shaking from adrenaline, or awe, rather, but the truth is his knees have done a lot more to the psyche of opposing defensive backs than they’ve ever given out on him.
This is the story of an underdog falling perfectly into place, just at the right moment, and putting a stamp on a football program that will stand the test of time.
Before South was a region champion and four points away from being undefeated for the first time in school history, the War Eagles were a blue-collar cast and crew that battled through the summer heat with more questions than answers. They had to replace 14 starters from a team that won seven games a year prior, and two of those were receivers.
When the War Eagles would take the field at practice, a slim, short and shy-mannered player in a No. 89 jersey stood out from the other players—but anyone without context about the team would assume No. 89 was just a freshman, or maybe a sophomore. A practice dummy, perhaps.
That line of thinking would be very, very wrong.
The offense lined up on the south end of the field to begin passing skeleton drills—a good time for receiver Jalen Camp, a 6-foot-2, 210 pound Liberty commit, to flash his brilliance. It was also an opportunity to catch a glimpse of Jaylen Pearson, a budding sophomore with the frame of a senior.
The two receivers got in and out of their routes, made some plays, and before long the sun snuck out into the south endzone and started to prompt many players to start eyeing the water cooler.
Then No. 89 stepped into the formation. At the hike of the ball he turned his body toward the center of the field, flashed his hands, and shifted a foot back. The defender flew in to make a play and missed No. 89 by a mile—he was standing in the endzone with the ball. Numerous players on the sideline, waiting their turn to get in, let out “oohs,” and perked up from their dehydrated state.
No. 89 bashfully returned the ball back to midfield, stepped out in the pattern again, and burned some defensive backs again. And again. And one more time.
A few fathers, watching practice in lounge chairs squeezed between the steel bleachers under the shadow of the home-side press box, let out their analysis:
“Who’s that kid,” one father asked.
“Ronnie Chambliss. He’s a senior,” the other said.
When Chambliss was in the fifth grade at Sharon Springs he picked up football for the first time. He played safety, as well as running back, and learned of his abilities as an agile runner in no time. In the eighth grade Chambliss moved to wide receiver, and thought his football career was on the fast track.
Then came last spring, when Chambliss suffered a broken ankle after getting caught blocking on the edge—the running back, behind him, plowed into his backside and sent him down, awkwardly enough, and the pain set in. The rehab would go until August, and once he was clear to play Chambliss, a junior, suited up for the junior varsity team. The varsity squad had plenty of depth, and Chambliss, now an upperclassmen, was coming off an injury and still just 5-foot-6.
But receivers coach Heath Hover never let the height or injury history play a role in his assessment of Chambliss. As South head coach Jeff Arnette puts it, “Hover knew Ronnie was going to be something special for us for a while.”
In the third game of the 2015 season against Habersham Central, Chambliss, a senior with limited playing time, finally broke onto the scene. Early in the game, Chambliss nearly took a kickoff return to the house, but lost his footing after a near shoe-string tackle threw off his balance just enough to fall down 10 yards later.
On the next play, Chambliss, his shoe fastened correctly on his foot once again, took an end-around 41 yards to the house down the near sideline. From that point on, the speedy senior became South’s deep threat numero uno.
In seven games, Chambliss has caught 22 passes for 345 yards. That doesn’t seem like a ton until you realize more than a third of his grabs have been touchdowns, and every single one of them has been eye-opening.
Against Alpharetta on Oct. 23, Chambliss caught a pass near the sideline on a comeback route with a defensive back trailing him after the break. The defender tried to grab Chambliss, but instead only got jersey—just enough to yank on it like a rubber band, holding Chambliss motionless as he churned his feet. He broke out of it, and within an instant was moving full speed, faked inside, and broke back out, leaving not one, but two defenders falling on top of eachother as he raced for the endzone.
He pulled a similar move against West, using his start-stop ability to freeze defenders and make two miss, almost as if he had entered a cheat code during a water break.
Very often, Chambliss spends his time making one single, awesome, instant move that leaves defensive backs witnessing Ronnie-bombs from the seat of a yard marker.
Teammate and fellow senior Elijah Smith, a defensive back, knows all too well about being victimized by a Chambliss double-move.
“He’s a shifty little guy,” Smith said. “He’s the best that I go up against on a daily basis, against any receiver I’ve gone against this season. If you don’t have eye discipline against Ronnie you’re toast.”
Receivers are known for taking names. Former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson and or OchoCinco even kept a list of defensive backs he had “beaten” during a season. Even with the precedent, Chambliss, a “yes-sir, no-sir” kind of dude, couldn’t even recall catching passes on Hoover High School’s P.J. Hill, a top-50 prospect from Alabama’s flagship prep program, during passing camp over the summer.
“I just love making plays and moving the football,” Chambliss said. “I like putting points on the board.”
“He’s become a total weapon for us,” Arnette said. “This year he has blown up. I think we saw it in the passing leagues when guys just couldn’t guard him. Your only real hope at stopping him is pressing him at the line, and he can get rid of that also.”
Arnette also believes Chambliss could flourish in any offense, not just the wide-open style South plays with that utilizes a mix of on-the-line screens and deep wheel routes off of those screens.
“I think with the way he’s playing right now it wouldn’t matter what offense he’s in. He’s proven he can go deep, he catches hitches and takes those to the house,” Arnette said.
Friday, Chambliss and company will face Goliath: the Norcross Blue Devils. Norcross (7-3), which is a breeding ground for Division I talent, has had a down year but can still taste state titles in 2012 and 2013 under current head coach Keith Maloof.
Chambliss is prepared for any challenge. He proved that last week. He hopes to prove it again this Friday, where he will face D-I defensive backs in Kendrec Grady (Iowa State) and Jarrett Cole (Georgia Tech).
“Before the season even began, our goal was to win a region championship,” Chambliss said, confidently, like a guy who has been killing it in varsity ball for four seasons. “We’ve had that mindset, and now it’s about that next step. We believe in ourselves.”
As far as becoming a core piece of the best team in South history, Chambliss again, with a straight face, pitches that he never once doubted himself.
“I knew around summer time, when I was catching a lot of balls in practice, my confidence was just going up,” Chambliss said. “I started to trust my hands more and stuff.”
Chambliss’ story isn’t about a past of dominating on the football field, nor is it set in stone for the future. He says he wants to continue playing football for as long as he can, whether that means walking onto a college football team or playing club ball. His college choices are up in the air.
But the verdict is already out on the 2015 season. When the War Eagles finished 9-1, 8-1 in Region 6 and dominated their rival from down the street to put a stamp on the best season in school history, Chambliss, in that tiny No. 89 jersey, was often the man flying past defenders—into the frames of eager photographers, into the bad dreams of opposing defensive backs, and into the history books at South Forsyth High School.
He’s no record breaker, no D-I specimen and maybe won’t be the big man on campus when he goes to college. But to be 5-foot-6, 113 pounds and make that many defensive backs look silly?
They’ll be talking about Ronnie bombs at South for years to come.