TENAHA — Tenaha head coach Craig Horn wears his emotions on his sleeve. His players have seen that every day in practice, and each and every Thursday or Friday night during the season.

The message is rarely positive. Until it is.

Following the Tigers’ 60-22 blowout of Burton in last week’s Class 2A Division II semifinal, Horn needed to get something off his chest.

“Nobody's offered him yet, which means there are just a lot of pretty dumb college football coaches out there," he said. "The kid's special, but he's from a small school so he doesn't get a lot of respect. He's the highest-character kid you ever want to meet and the hardest working kid you ever want to meet. If someone doesn't offer him they're a damn fool."

He was on fire. In a good way, about his senior playmaker Trai Gardner.

His fingerprints were all over the win. Gardner scored four times — a 95-yard interception return, 71- and 52-yard touchdown receptions, and a 65-yard scoring run.

Gardner was as shocked as anyone about his head coach’s postgame comments.

Tenaha's Trai Gardner (11) on his way for a long TD run after catch, during the Tigers 2A Semi-final playoff game with the Burton Panthers, at Crockett HS stadium. (© Lang White, ETSN.fm)
Tenaha's Trai Gardner (11) on his way for a long TD run after catch, during the Tigers 2A Semi-final playoff game with the Burton Panthers, at Crockett HS stadium. (© Lang White, ETSN.fm)

“It means a lot,” Gardner said. “He expresses feelings but he’s more on the down side. He’s gonna tell you what you’re doing wrong. And for him to say something like that really meant a lot to me.”

Gardner (6-0, 185), who plays receiver, safety and returns kicks and punts, is currently without any college football scholarship offers.

And his high school career comes to a close Thursday in the state championship game, Gardner knows time is running out.

“From what I’ve been told by a few (college) coaches, they’re like ‘good luck at state, I’ll be watching,’” Gardner said. “I’m like OK, I gotta perform this week. But I don’t wanna overthink it.”

With the game being televised regionally throughout the state, Gardner will have a captive audience of college coaching staffs, which are looking to complete their 2018 recruiting classes.

National Signing Day in Feb. 7.

His performance last week, and perhaps the bold public comments from his head coach, have sparked interest.

“Ever since last Thursday, I’ve been getting a lot of contact (from college coaches),” Gardner said.

Horn understands why Gardner is overlooked. Tenaha plays at the state’s smallest 11-man classification, and his level of competition isn’t an ideal barometer for future projections.

“When the recruiters come through, I tell them ‘hey look. If I was still down at La Marque, (Gardner) would start for us,’” Horn said. “I think it’s obviously the dominant factor. If he’s sitting at Carthage right now, he’s already offered. Trai’s not the first kid to go through this and he won’t be the last.

“The only thing he can take care of are the things he can take care of. Go win a state championship, prove on the big stage you’re the best player on the field. Something will happen, and if it doesn’t he’ll go walk on and he’ll work his way into money. He’ll be a scholarship player before he’s said and done.”

Gardner’s numbers are spectacular. He’s Tenaha’s leading receiver with 56 catches for 1,204 yards and 18 touchdowns. Gardner has also rushed 16 times for 243 yards and three scores.

Defensively, he has two interceptions, six pass break-ups, and a fumble recovery.

Gardner also averages 47.4 yards per kickoff return, and 15.5 on punt returns.

“I’m always trying to do something to make my team better, whether that’s scoring touchdowns, getting blocks,” Gardner said. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m trying to do what’s best for the team.”

But Gardner’s impact goes way beyond what he brings to the field.

“He’s the soul of the program, he’s the heart and soul,” Horn said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about basketball or track or anything, he’s the rock. We’re not here if it’s not for him.

“When the kids look into his eyes, everything’s OK. Tremendous kid, great work ethic, highest character. If you have a daughter he’s the type of guy you want dating your daughter.”

While Horn is unsettled by Gardner’s uncertainty when it comes to college football, he is confident in his player’s future.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and have been fortunate enough to coach a lot of great athletes,” he said. “He’s gonna catch on somewhere with somebody and they’re gonna find out what they’ve got. They’re gonna get a bargain.”

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