Football coaches in the Cumberland District have tried to devise schemes and come up with gameplans in an attempt to stop J.I. Burton High School’s Mikey Culbertson for four years now and it’s safe to say they don’t like it.
“I can’t wait until he is gone,” said Thomas Walker coach Nick Johnson. “I am probably going to send him a graduation gift.”
A four-year starter at fullback and linebacker, Culbertson has ran roughshod over league opponents and his final season will officially begin on Thursday night when Burton hosts Ridgeview in far Southwest Virginia’s first regular-season game of 2019.
“It’s bittersweet,” Culbertson said. “I’ve been a part of the program for a while and now it’s kind of my second home, really. After this year it’s going to take some getting used to not being around.”
Culbertson has certainly made the most of his time on the gridiron with the Raiders and admits that it seems like only yesterday he was taking the field as a nervous ninth-grader in the 2016 season-opener against the Union Bears.
“It was crazy,” Culbertson said. “We had the first game of the year on a Thursday, so it was packed full and we were playing Union, who had a man by the name of James Mitchell [who is currently a tight end at Virginia Tech] that I was going to have to tackle, so I was pretty anxious and scared, but I ended up playing pretty decent.”
He’s been better than decent since then and is a two-time Cumberland District defensive player of the year.
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Culbertson is what folks call a throwback, a prototypical coalfield player who could have excelled in any era. He would fare well alongside those leather-helmet wearing stars of the 1940s just as he does with his contemporaries in 2019.
Johnson, Eastside boss Mike Rhodes and Twin Springs coach Keith Warner all provided the same answer when asked to describe Culbertson: Tough.
That was also the trait Culbertson’s own coach pointed to when talking about his star player.
“Mikey’s biggest strength is his toughness,” said J.I. Burton interim head coach Jacob Caudill. “He takes a beating sometimes, but more times than not he’s giving out the big hits and just keeps on trucking. I know the last couple of years he has battled some injuries, but no one knew about them because he’s a tough guy.
“He never complains about anything and just keeps pushing through the pain. His work ethic won’t be matched by anyone.”
Culbertson tends to rise to the occasion and Caudill remembers one instance in particular from last season.
“We were gearing up to play Thomas Walker last year. They were 7-2 and we were 7-2 playing the last game of the season for the Cumberland District championship,” said Caudill, Burton’s defensive coordinator a year ago. “I went to Mikey early in the week and challenged him. I said Thomas Walker was coming to Norton to win the district championship and that I didn’t know if he had what it took to shut them down and that they were going to come take the district championship from him. He looked at me and said, ‘Challenge accepted.’ … Mikey went out and had about 18 tackles that night and we won the district championship. He came to me after the game in the locker room and said, ‘Coach Caudill, I appreciate you challenging the defense and me to get the job done.’ ”
Johnson can vouch that Culbertson put on a clinic that night on both sides of the ball.
“He is a really tough runner and hard to bring down,” said Johnson, TW’s coach. “He is still running from our game at the end of last year I believe. But he impresses me most at linebacker. He is in on almost every tackle. He knows exactly where to be.”
What would Culbertson say is his favorite spot on the football field?
“If I had to choose it would be linebacker,” Culbertson said. “I’ve always been a defensive-minded person and I think I’m better at linebacker and I enjoy playing that position more than running back.”
It’s become almost routine to see Culbertson crush a ball carrier with a bone-rattling tackle.
“Once he goes on a blitz in a hole,” said teammate Najee Steele. “I’m scared for anyone in his way.”
While he causes consternation for opposing teams, Mikey himself likes those Friday night lights more than anything.
“Mikey’s biggest strength is his love for the game,” said J.I. Burton lineman Tyler Spriggs. “He has been playing football since peanut league and he has never lost his love for the game.”