Two years ago, at the conclusion of August two-a-days, Stanfield football coach Steve Sheller cut out about 40 pieces of paper and proceeded to hand them out.

Adhering to a democracy when choosing his team captains, Sheller had his players write in who they believed best exemplified their program’s ideals.

Then a first-year head coach, he wasn’t going to dole out the letter C to someone based solely on past laurels.

So when Sheller started to tally up the names on those shards of paper, he wasn’t completely surprised when a physically-gifted sophomore — one who played sparingly as a freshman — earned a chunk of the vote.

Before playing a down as a starter, Bryce Linker had already earned the respect and adoration of his peers.

“I was a little surprised by that,” Linker said. “You’d think (a captain) would go to an older guy. At that point, I knew I had to step up and stop seeing myself as a younger player.”

Linker’s sterling resume would suggest he’s never been a youthful commodity, earning all-Blue Mountain Conference honors at running back and defensive end in the years leading up his senior season.

He’s been a key figure in Stanfield’s climb to relevance in the 2A ranks, helping the Tigers finish in a three-way tie for second in the BMC in 2011 then helping lead them to the state playoffs a year ago.

Now, as a senior, the 6-foot, 195-pound speedster is carrying more of the load, putting up a gaudy 610 yards and 13 touchdowns in Standfield’s 4-0 start.

The only thing more impressive than his 10.9 yards per carry is that he’d be just as well-liked if he lined up at tackle.

The soft-spoken leader has been a club favorite by way of humility and a somewhat foreign concept in a senior’s approach to underclassmen.

Encouragement.

“A coach’s dream,” Sheller said of Linker. “He’s just such a nice kid. He’ll knock you on your tail on the field, but he’ll be the first to pat you on the back. Everything a coach could ask for, really. A good role model.”

On a team littered with freshmen and sophomores, Linker’s leadership role has magnified. He’s doubled his efforts on both sides of the ball with patience and a relaxed vocal approach that’s helped equate to a perfect start.

The way the multi-sport standout sees it — he’s also one of the better baseball and basketball players in the region — he’s just paying it forward.

“You just gotta think when you were in their position,” Linker said. “You have to be a teacher to them. Treating them bad isn’t going to help anyone.”

He can just look back to two years ago when he sought guidance from an accomplished letterman.

When Linker began his varsity career, he played the first half of his season at quarterback before four-year starter Corey Baros went down with an injury.

In the Tigers’ run-heavy scheme, Linker was forced to replace the injured standout at tailback. But while Baros, an East-West Shrine Game selection a year ago, was out, he served as a de facto coach.

Like Linker, Baros was a cool customer.

“Just a real nice guy. I saw him mad maybe once in my life,” Linker said of Baros. “It was nice playing those years with him and having someone to look up to.”

It’s an approach Linker hopes others absorb when he’s gone.

“You see those kids that have a big head, and that’s not the type of person I want to be,” Linker said. “I don’t want to be a meaner guy and have the younger kids think that’s OK.”

Sheller is aware of the rarity of having a string of grounded leaders and feels fortunate for each one that’s come through.

“When the toughest, strongest and fastest guy on your team also has the ability to bring your team together, that’ll makes things a lot easier,” Sheller joked. “I’ve been fortunate to have some great kids out here.”

Linker’s father and brother were former small-school standouts in their own right, but the younger Linker hasn’t exactly gotten by on innate ability.

He’s been a regular in the Sheller’s offseason workout program and during the summer months, he’d often be balancing legion baseball, summer basketball and football-related lifting any given week.

Max lifts of 245 (bench), 340 (squat), 360 (deadlift) and 230 (power cleans) have helped Linker take his game to new heights.

“He’s always been a kid that’s been well put together, physically,” Sheller said. “But he’s worked for it.”

In the classroom, the hunting and fishing enthusiast has maintained a 4.0 grade point average.

As far as his collegiate plans go, though, he’s still undecided.

He knows he’ll major in forestry, but doesn’t know if football or baseball will be the sport that helps minimize tuition costs.

“Whichever sport gives me the best chance,” said the Tigers’ hard-throwing ace in the spring. “I believe I’m competitive enough in both, but it’s a matter of choosing the right one.”

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