Nov. 6, 2008
Rome, Ga. - Over the course of four years, college football players develop strong bonds as teammates - bonds that last well beyond their playing careers.
As the No. 20-ranked Hawks enter their game on Saturday against Belhaven, Keith and Oliver know they are nearing the end of a football relationship that began back in eighth grade and has allowed them to play the game they love so much literally next to each other every fall weekend.
And, by the way, playing very, very well.
"I don't know what it's going to be like not having them back there," Shorter defensive coordinator Mike Bartik said of Keith and Oliver, who have been constant fixtures in Shorter's defensive backfield, playing in every game in four years - Keith had to sit out one game earlier this season - and earning Mid South All-Conference honors the last two years.
"Both are of high character and high-quality individuals," the coach said. "They're the quarterbacks in the secondary."
Former standouts at Stephens County High School in Toccoa, Keith - he lines up at strong safety - and Oliver - Shorter's free safety - immediately found a home with Shorter, and gave the team a potent tandem who by the time they arrived on the college scene had the communication part of the game down pat.
"I think we may have some kind of record," said Oliver, a computer science major who will be commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps when he graduates this spring, "of having played more snaps together that anyone else. When we started back in eighth grade, Budd was the quarterback and I was the running back. Now we are together as defensive backs."
"Looking back," Keith, who will graduate from Shorter with a degree in math and business, said about the long-time friendship, "it's been a special thing being able to play together for so long."
The pair heads into their last home game having given Shorter some of its own special memories. In the first three seasons of the Hawks' program, the statistics are overwhelming - Keith has 147 total tackles and nine interceptions, while Oliver has racked up 165 total tackles and eight interceptions.
This season, one in which Shorter has faced a wealth of foes running multiple-spread offenses, there has been more of the same with Keith collecting 43 tackles and four picks, and Oliver applying 48 tackles and leading the team with six pass break-ups.
"A lot more teams are running the spread," Keith said, "but that's the way football is swinging. It's a whole lot different from what we played in high school. But for us, it's gotten to be a fun thing."
Both Keith and Oliver realize that the end of their on-field bond is nearing an end, although they both feel like the Hawks can have postseason life after the regular season ends.
"This one is a big game for us in a lot of ways," Oliver said about Saturday's final home contest at Barron, though the door to the NAIA National Championship game that will be played in Rome on Dec. 20 is still open. "It's going to be an emotional one for all of us."
"I have a sense of pride," said Keith, " being one of the original 120 from that first team still left. But I'm not focusing on this being the last home game or the final game of the season. I just focus on having fun."