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Football: From ball boy to captain, Tjong grew up around West football
Senior safety had a critical 97-yard kickoff return against North Gwinnett
Dalton Tjong
West Forsyth senior Dalton Tjong will lead the Wolverines against top-ranked Grayson in the third round of the Class 7A playoffs. - photo by David Roberts

Dalton Tjong gave away footballs the last time West Forsyth played Grayson.

On Friday night, he'll be the one trying to take them away.

You see, Tjong was one of West's ball boys in elementary school. His family moved to the area in 2007, when Frank Hepler took the head coaching job at West. Tjong's father, Robert Tjong, coached with Hepler at Plantation High School in Florida and took a position on Hepler's staff at West.

Naturally, Dalton took every opportunity to be around his father at that age.

"I was at the game in 2011, the last time we played Grayson in the third round. I think it's so cool that we're doing that now as seniors," Tjong said. "I've just been around this culture for so long that I think it's awesome to have that moment and be able to step on that field."

Dalton Tjong
Dalton Tjong, left, with his father, Robert Tjong, an assistant coach for West Forsyth. Photo submitted

Tjong didn't know how many more chances he would get this season after breaking a bone in his hand two months ago against Mill Creek. 

The last thing he remembers is trying to fill a hole on a running play, sprinting down from his safety position to meet the running back at the line of scrimmage.

"I didn't know what happened. I just went in there and I thought I must have hit my hand on something," Tjong said. "Then, reviewing the film, it looked like one of their linemen stepped on my hand. It was just unfortunate. All the milk I drink, I was like, 'Oh, there's no way I'm going to break a bone.'"

West had its bye the following week and Tjong had surgery to repair the Bennett fracture. 

The initial prognosis had Tjong returning for West's Nov. 13 game against Lambert, but he ended up missing that game, too.

"There's not any magic pill you can take that'll make me heal faster," Tjong said. "I just had to wait, and that was the most frustrating part."

Tjong returned the following week against Denmark, in time to help West past the Danes, 20-10, in the Region 6-7A championship.

It was a hurdle to Tjong's senior season, and one that likely meant his preseason goal of logging 100 tackles wouldn't happen. 

Tjong was well on his way, too, tallying 42 stops through the first four games, including an impressive 16 tackles during a 24-21 win against Walton. 

He also made his second interception of the season against Mill Creek before the injury, which put him one up on fellow safety Drew Southern, who had a critical pick-six the previous week against Walton. 

"There's a little bit of a competition between one another to see who's going to get the most picks," Tjong said. "I think he's up on me now because of last [week]. We're interchangeable — we can roll down, one stay high or vice versa. Chemistry-wise, we're just brothers — like how my dad refers to us as brothers even though we're not related."

Southern picked off North Gwinnett quarterback Ethan Washington last week during the Wolverines' 17-16 win, then caught a 9-yard TD pass on the following offensive possession. 

But Tjong had a big play of his own against North Gwinnett.

It came with the Wolverines trailing 16-7 in the second half. West needed a spark.

"They had just scored and we were kind of in a lull going to the sidelines," Tjong said. "Had that little TV timeout to gather your thoughts and go out there, and it was just like, 'Gotta make a play.' I catch the ball, take off and I hit the hole, and I got some nice blocks from my teammates. They did a phenomenal job blocking for me, especially that last block where they got the kicker.

"You have a couple of kick-out blocks there, and I got around the edge and I'm like, 'Oh man, they didn't touch me.' I just kept going. As soon as I passed that kicker, I was like, 'I'm going to the house.'"

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Photo by Mitchell Martin

The kickoff return pulled West within one score, then Liam Badger's 26-yard field goal gave the Wolverines their first — and final — lead of the game. 

Tjong's mid-season injury was one of several dealt to the Wolverines.

Against Grayson on Friday, West will be without a couple of critical starters in running back Daba Fofana and tight end Oscar Delp.

"I think it's really great how we're able to overcome all those injuries," Tjong said. "Coach [Dave] Svehla has told us that we haven't played a game with all the starters we thought we were going to have in the beginning. To be able to win a region title with not everyone we've had, I think it's awesome to be able to overcome that."

Delp was injured against Denmark and the Wolverines have been without Fofana since October.

Fofana's absence led to opportunities for sophomore William Orris [65 carries, 283 yards] and freshman Ryder Stewart [68 carries, 339 yards, 3 TDs].

Stewart had his first 100-yard game during West's first-round win against Meadowcreek. 

"We didn't think of it as a burden on us, just a way to keep moving forward and find the next person to help us out, like Ryder and Orris," Tjong said. "I think that's amazing to be able to step up as a freshman. Just coming off his freshman season and staying on and getting pulled up, I think that's amazing the way he's been able to help us out."

Tjong has also been impressed by defensive back Bryce Allen, who started last season as a sophomore and broke the school record for pass break-ups earlier this year.

"Bryce has come a long way from last year. He's definitely grown up so much," Tjong said. "For him to be doing that right now and covering DI talent as a junior right now, I think he's going to get some offers on the way."

Tjong was a linebacker before converting to safety last year. 

It took some time to learn the nuances of the position. It didn't take half as long for Tjong to develop his chemistry with Southern. 

"I had to play with like five or six other guys. I was teaching a new kid how to play safety — I was kind of an extension of my father last year," Tjong recalls. "I told my dad, 'Can we get Drew to come play safety for us?' I absolutely love playing with him. I think he's doing awesome. He's just a utility kid; he can play wherever you need him to play. Catching an interception and a touchdown last game, that's why he got overall player of the game. I think that's amazing for him."

Both Tjong and Southern stand 5-foot-11, with Southern listed a mere 5 pounds heavier than Tjong.

The similarities don't end there. 

“Those are two of our four captains, and there’s a reason, because number one, they both work their tails off and they don’t say a word. They are extremely coachable,” Svehla said of the two players earlier this season. “Number two, they’re also really good football players. They have tremendous football IQ and instincts because they’re good athletes, but they’re really seeing what’s happening in front of them and anticipating things. When you see them make plays, it’s not necessarily because they out-athleted anybody. It’s because they out-thought them.”

Much of that intelligence, Tjong says, comes from his father, who offers a wealth of football knowledge and experience.

"He's always kind of told me I have to be twice as good as the kid that could be in front of me," Tjong said. "It's good because of the communication aspect. Football never really stops. Most kids go home and they don't have to worry about it, but it's just constant football most of the time. I think it's awesome, because if I'm confused about something, I don't have to wait until the next day. I'm able to just ask about it."

One of Grayson's strengths rests on the arm of four-star quarterback Jake Garcia, a top prospect who started the season at Valdosta after transferring from California. 

"Getting their athletes in space is big," Tjong said. "I know they lost their running back, and that's a plus for us, but they still have depth to their team. It's a lot of throw-the-ball-deep for them. They just have the tall athletes and they just go up and get it. For us, it's being able to cover deep and coming up to stop the run." 

It'll be a challenge for Tjong and West's secondary, but the Wolverines believe they can win Friday. 

Tjong thinks having that mindset ahead of the North Gwinnett game was one of the key differences between last week, when the Wolverines won, and 2018, when North Gwinnett beat West 41-7.

Chalk it up as just one more obstacle for a persistent West Forsyth team, led by a resilient captain in Tjong.