RICHLANDS, Va. – Those scorching summer afternoons spent slinging the pigskin around while perfecting timing routes with his wide receivers.
The numerous camps that had helped fine-tune his mechanics.
Being a youngster and seeing his heroes playing at Ernie Hicks Stadium on Friday nights and vowing one day to do the same.
Those 7-on-7 events that dragged on all day in the offseason.
The film study at all hours.
The rush of adrenaline that occurred each time he pulled on that helmet with the distinctive R on the side.
The “brotherhood” as he called it that he had developed with his teammates.
That was part of the journey that brought Richlands High School quarterback John-Luke Asbury to a date with destiny on Dec. 3, 2016, three and a half hours from home on a chilly afternoon.
Richlands trailed homestanding Stuarts Draft by a 23-16 margin in the VHSL 2A state semifinals.
The end zone was 84 yards away.
Only 1:28 showed on the clock.
The Blue Tornado had just one timeout to burn.
His heart might have been beating a little faster as he took the field for the final drive, but don’t kid yourself – the dude was in control.
“It’s a Richlands football thing,” Asbury said. “We practice hard, we work hard and we know at the end of the day we’re better prepared than they are. When you can look your guys in the eyes and you know they trust you and you trust them with everything you’ve got, you know it’s going to turn out the right way.”
This was Asbury’s opportunity to become a local legend.
It was his chance to earn some atonement, having been intercepted three times earlier in the game.
If this was a script, Asbury and his teammates wrote an ending that will not soon be forgotten in Southwest Virginia.
It came to a crescendo with Asbury orchestrating a drive to remember.
Two receptions by Taylor Horn.
Scottie Ball hauled in a pass to reach midfield.
The QB ripped off a 19-yard run of his own.
A 5-yard pass to Race Moir was complete.
Then that 25-yard scoring strike to the 6-foot-4 Ball with 8.6 seconds remaining to pull Richlands within one point.
That was just the beginning.
A go-for-broke 2-point conversion awaited.
Once again, Asbury hooked up with Ball.
Final score: Richlands 24, Stuarts Draft 23.
Linked forever: Asbury-to-Ball.
It was the defining moment in a memorable season for Asbury, the Bristol Herald Courier’s offensive player of the year after racking up 49 touchdown passes and 3,748 yards for a team that finished 13-2 and as state runner-up.
“He made us tick,” said Richlands coach Greg Mance. “We went as John-Luke went.”
Mance made an observation earlier this week that Asbury’s helmet had hardly a mark on it.
It’s hard to get a good shot in on somebody who has a big offensive line to offer protection and also gets rid of the ball quickly.
There was a time, however, when that wasn’t the case and opponents teed off on Asbury regularly.
“You never noticed him much in Little League,” Mance said. “He played for the Cedar Bluff Blue Devils and they were absolutely terrible at the time and probably last place in our league. He took a beating and didn’t have time to throw the football.”
He got better, however, by the time he enrolled at Richlands.
He almost won the starting job as a sophomore, but spent the season as River Michaels’ backup instead.
Last season, the job was his.
Quarterback is a glamour position, especially at a school like Richlands where football is king.
With the gig comes a lot of responsibility.
“There definitely is,” Asbury said. “I feel like everybody’s always watching me and I’ve just tried to be respectable and to be a good friend and a good teammate of everybody around, on and off the field. People look at you and at the end of the day if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, making the right reads on the football field and doing things like that, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Then there’s those Friday nights in front of the fans Ernie Hicks Stadium. It’s special to say the least.
“There are really no words to describe the feeling,” Asbury said. “You pack the stands out with the best fans in the area … Everybody always comes. It’s phenomenal playing out here.”
Directing an offense with so many weapons is like being handed the keys to a Porsche. Indeed, the Blue Tornado’s offense is one high-powered machine.
“There’s not many people that get to play with the group of receivers I have,” Asbury said. “Those receivers ran great routes, they were fast, they were agile and I was very blessed to play with them.”
Those guys probably echoed those sentiments about their signal caller, one who has the brains to dissect defenses quickly and the arm to get the ball where it needs to be.
“John-Luke is probably the best pure passer I’ve ever coached,” Mance said. “He had the ability to speed the ball up, the ability to put the touch on it and he had the strong arm. He could throw it 60, 65 yards.”
Asbury is an unassuming kid.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior entered the locker room on Monday, but if you weren’t aware of who he was he tended to blend in with the other high schoolers milling around.
However, most other kids don’t have a 24-4 record as a starting quarterback and aren’t two-time 2A state players of the year.
That first accomplishment means much more than the latter to Asbury.
Never was that more apparent than in a game against Virginia High in September.
His seventh touchdown pass to Cody Howie with 10:28 remaining in the third quarter put Richlands up 48-14. With plenty of time on the clock, he had a chance to possibly set a state single-game record for TD passes, but declined.
“It’s a team sport,” Asbury said. “And I do believe that [backup] Trey Brown, he needed that. He’s going to be a great quarterback in this system and he’s going to step in and do great things. I just really wanted him to get the opportunities. I’d rather just celebrate the win with the team.”
So, what are Asbury’s emotions in the hours leading up to a game?
“I’m not very superstitious,” Asbury said. “A weird one that I have is I used to listen to Hank Williams Jr. on Pandora [internet radio] before the games. If I get my head all psyched up, it seems I played worse. So a little bit of country music calmed me down.”
Then it was time to go to work.
“John-Luke’s presence is a mixture,” said Richlands wide receiver Chace Collins. “Before games, my dude is wired, ready to go, but game time comes and he’s dialed in and focused.”
The 2016 season ended for Richlands with a 42-7 loss to Appomattox in the 2A state finals.
Asbury was intercepted twice and did not throw a touchdown against a defense with speed everywhere.
“It does hurt,” Asbury said. “It’s tough to talk about and think about. I haven’t really discussed it much since. … Appomattox is a great football team with a great coach and those boys were a class act.”
While his life revolves a lot around football, Asbury’s hobbies off the gridiron include bass fishing and turkey hunting.
He’s pretty good at those, but the southpaw is not near as talented as when he’s taking snaps and unleashing spirals.
“God’s given me a gift not too many people get to have,” Asbury said. “I love it; I love playing quarterback. I love the mental things it puts you through. I love the physicality. I even love the pressure moments that it puts you in.”
Asbury is contemplating walking on at Marshall University in the fall.
Whatever the future holds, Asbury will leave a legacy at Richlands.
A legacy solidified with an 84-yard drive, a pulsating touchdown pass and an unforgettable 2-point conversion.
“He trusted Scottie and they had done it a hundred times in practice,” Mance said. “He executed perfectly.”
The QB Log
How Richlands High School quarterback John-Luke Asbury fared in each game this season:
Opponent Pass Yards TD INT
Gate City 176 5 2
Union 240 4 1
Graham 253 3 2
Wise Central 264 4 0
Virginia High 391 7 0
Bluefield (W.Va.) 279 5 0
Tazewell 335 5 0
Grundy 178 3 1
Abingdon 159 0 3
Lebanon 132 3 0
John Battle 200 1 0
Glenvar 222 4 1
Graham 262 2 0
Stuarts Draft 438 3 3
Appomattox 219 0 2
2016 BHC High School Offensive Football Team
QB — John-Luke Asbury, Richlands
First team all-2A state VHSCA selection powered the high-flying Richlands offense to the state championship game. ... Passed for 3,748 yards and 49 touchdowns.
RB — Brady Justice, Hurley
Capped dominant career with 2,256 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground. ... Finished with 6,004 career rushing yards. ... The Crooked Road Conference and Black Diamond District player of the year also added four touchdown catches.
RB — Cameron Fannon, Union
Gained 1,459 yards on 145 carries with 15 touchdowns. ... On defense added 50 solo tackles and three interceptions.
WR — Jeff Wallace, Abingdon
First team all-Conference 32 selection also earned second team all-Region 3A West honors.
WR — Cody Howie, Richlands
Made 66 catches for 990 yards and 16 touchdowns as part of a dominant Richlands aerial attack.
TE — James Mitchell, Union
Area’s top prospect made 42 catches for 729 yards and 10 touchdowns. ... Also contributed 65 tackles, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries defensively.
OL — Matthew Jones, J.I. Burton
Named the Cumberland District offensive lineman of the year.
OL — Brandon Cale, Chilhowie
Team captain paved the way for an explosive offense that averaged 36.7 points per game. ... Chilhowie rushing attack recorded 2,876 yards.
OL — Dylan Anderson, George Wythe
Recorded a blocking rate of 94 percent. ... Added 96 solo tackles, 42 assists and 20 tackles for loss.
OL — Aaron Blankenship, Abingdon
Earned first team all-Conference 32 honors.
OL — Evan Duncan, Union
First team all-Region 2A West selection also was named the Clinch Mountain Conference’s co-lineman of the year.
Return Man — Markell Moss, George Wythe
Dynamic playmaker earned first team all-1A state honors as a returner. ... Had 813 rushing yards and 356 receiving yards while scoring 14 touchdowns.
Athlete — Gunner Griffith, Sullivan East
School’s all-time leader in career catches and receiving yards notched 39 grabs for 541 yards and eight TD catches in his senior campaign. ... Also returned a punt for a touchdown and notched 74 tackles on defense.
K — Jordan Stout, Honaker
Virginia Tech commit made 23 of 24 extra points and 6 of 7 field goals, including a 50-yarder. ... Honored as a first all-1A state selection at both punter and kicker.