BY DOUG GORMAN
Three former Northgate football players must be having the time of their lives right now.
Clemson linebacker Jamie Skalski just won his second national title with the Tigers, while New Orleans Saints place kicker Will Lutz and Los Angeles Chargers defensive back Brandon Facyson are collecting a paycheck in the NFL and could be on a collision course to meet in the Super Bowl in Atlanta after both of their NFL teams made it to playoffs.
In just three seasons, Lutz has turned into one of the NFL’s best and accurate kickers while Facyson is in his rookie season.
The Saints, who won the NFC South regular season title, take on the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia in the second round Sunday, while the Chargers play the New England Patriots in a second-round AFC playoff battle.
No one could be prouder of the trio’s success than their former high school football coach Tommy Walburn who retired at the end of the 2016 season.
“What stands out about all of these guys is character, he said. “They were always the first to come to practice and the last to leave,” Walburn said. “We never had a bit of trouble with these guys.”
Walburn, a life-long, die-hard Alabama fan, admits he wasn’t pulling for Clemson in Monday night’s NCAA Championship game, but was glad to see Skalski contribute to the Tigers’ victory with two solo tackles.
Clemson sent shockwaves around the college football world with a dominating 44-16 victory against top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama.
The retired coach, who led Northgate to a 52-27 record during his tenure with the Vikings, recalls how the Clemson’s redshirt junior wasn’t sold on football at first even though his father played at Oklahoma.
“He really wasn’t that fired up about football,” Walburn said. “Soccer was his first love.”
Skalski started out using those soccer skills as the team’s place kicker, but Walburn and the Northgate coaching staff saw something else in the future Newnan Times-Herald All-County Defensive Player of the Year.
“He had natural ability,” Walburn said.
Walburn began talking to him when he was just a freshman about joining the varsity and playing defense.”
“The first thing he said was Coach I don’t know about playing varsity, I might get hurt for soccer. We still kid him about that.”
Even though Skalski is over 6-feet tall, there were some college teams that shied away from the hard-nosed linebacker thinking he was too short to play the position at the major college level.
However, the Clemson coaching staff fell in love with Skalski’s nose for the football and ability to track down the player with the ball.
Walburn calls Skalski one of the best football players he has ever coached.
“In high school, he could have played all 11 positions on offense and all 11 positions on defense. ” Walburn said. He was that good. We even thought about putting him in at quarterback and letting him run some option.”
Skalski had to deal with the sudden death of his father shortly after arriving at Clemson and has used football to honor the memory of is father.
Lutz’s path to the NFL has been long and winding.
After attending kicking camps at Appalachian State and Georgia Tech, Lutz began his college career at Georgia State shortly after the downtown Atlanta school started the football program, playing their games at the old Georgia Dome.
For Lutz, that meant beginning his college career as a walk-on for the Panthers and paying his dues.
“He was a different type of kicker in high school,” Walburn said. “He was such a good athlete who could have played wide receiver on offense and linebacker on defense”
Walburn said Lutz’ mental approach to kicking has been what has made him so successful.
“He is very tough minded,” Walburn said.
Lutz went through his share of growing pains in college as the Panthers tried to find their own identity in those early years of the program.
He both kicked and punted for the Panthers and set a school record when he booted a 53-yarder against Alabama during the 2013 season.
Lutz was signed out of Georgia State by the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 after going undrafted.
The former Northgate Viking survived until the final days of cuts before being waived on Aug 29.
Less than a week later, Lutz was signed by the New Orleans Saints and has been on the roster ever since that day.
Earlier this year, Lutz tied his career best with four field goals against the New York Giants.
He was later named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
Lutz finished the regular season going 28 of 30 on field goals and hitting a season-long of 54.
He was also 49 of 50 on extra points.
Like Skalski, Lutz was also a standout soccer player during his days at Northgate.
The one thing that stands out about Facyson who played college football at Virginia Tech, is his intellect.
Facyson was the definition of a true-student athlete who never made anything less than an A in high school and juggled college football with the rigors of a biology major at Virginia Tech.
“He was so smart to go along with his ability to play football,” Walburn said. “That’s what made him so special.”
Facyson had a breakout freshman season at Virginia Tech before a broken leg sidelined him for a year when he was just starting his sophomore season.
In high school he played on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“He was a very talented wide receiver for us,” recalled Walburn.
After missing a year, Facyson returned to the Hokies starting line up eventually catching the attention of the Chargers who signed him as an undrafted free agent after he completed his college career.
Facyson talks about someday going to medical school, but has put those dreams on hold to purse his other dream of playing in the NFL.
Although he has seen limited playing time with the Chargers, he has three tackles.
Walburn says he doesn’t talk to the three former players often, but is excited for what they have accomplished.”
“I am so happy with what has happened with them since they left Northgate,” Walburn said. “Sitting where I am now and looking back, what I remember most is the type of people they were. They were great football players and great people.”