The parking lot was already filled with tailgaters when the Carl Albert High School team bus pulled in after a nearly 100-mile drive on the Oklahoma interstate. J.T. Realmuto, then a senior, was trying to lead his team to another state playoff win and keep his football career alive by toppling the favored Bishop Kelley.
First, the quarterback had to lead them through the parking lots.
“It was pretty intense,” said Anthony Frazier, who blocked for Realmuto on the offensive line a decade before Realmuto became the Phillies’ All-Star catcher. “There’s parents talking to us and little brothers and sisters yelling at us while we’re walking to the field.”
Carl Albert leaned that season on Realmuto’s leadership after two early-season losses. He led the team by setting an example that his teammates said inspired them to follow. And they followed him through that 2009 state quarterfinal against Tulsa’s Bishop Kelley as he ran the ball 39 times.
But Carl Albert needed more from their quarterback if they were to quiet the fans who heckled them that afternoon. Trailing by three points, Carl Albert called a timeout in the second overtime with the ball on the 1-yard line.
They were a yard away from getting back on that bus with an emotional victory on the road against a favored opponent. The season was on the line and Gary Rose, the team’s longtime head coach, wanted to make sure he had the right play. Then his quarterback interjected.
“I want the ball,” said Realmuto, ready to lead his team once more.
A week before spring training, the Phillies believed they had added the best catcher in baseball when they landed Realmuto in a trade with the Marlins. Realmuto, who will represent the Phillies Tuesday night in the All-Star Game, was both an elite hitter and elite defender with Miami. He was a rare commodity.
He finished the first half with a .767 OPS, 10 homers, and some of the best defensive metrics among all catchers. Realmuto has solidified himself as one of baseball’s premier catchers. But the Phillies have found out that he is much more than just a solid backstop. In his first six months with the Phillies, Realmuto has been a strong presence. He provides leadership not by yelling or screaming, but by setting an example.
“I think he’s very well aware that leadership doesn’t come in the form of what you say, and oftentimes it comes in the form of how you carry yourself," manager Gabe Kapler said. "His toughness is now already legendary. I think that’s one thing other players want to follow and respect.”
He has played nearly every day, battling through injuries to keep himself in the lineup. His pregame routine is unrivaled. Realmuto positioned himself with the Phillies to lead, just as he did when Carl Albert called a timeout with the ball on the 1-yard line.
“He’s not a vocal guy, but whenever he says something, you listen,” said Kyle Croak, who was one of Carl Albert’s offensive linemen. “It garners all of your attention. Whatever he is saying is powerful.”
A professional baseball career already seemed likely when Realmuto boarded the team bus for the two-hour trek to play Bishop Kelley. He was signed to play college baseball at Oklahoma State and the baseball draft was seven months away. Realmuto did not have to be on that bus, but he was.
Realmuto was the football team’s quarterback, the baseball team’s shortstop, and the basketball team’s power forward. He came from a family of elite wrestlers and his uncle John Smith was a two-time Olympic gold medalist. It’s easy to imagine how Carl Albert’s wrestling coach felt when Realmuto stayed off the mat. He was good at golf, smooth at ping-pong, and even beat his friends in squash.
“He could play anything,” Croak said. “I think even the tennis coach wanted him to come out. But that wasn’t going to happen.”
Realmuto played tight end when he joined the football team as a freshman. Carl Albert won one of its 12 state titles that season, but the coaching staff had trouble determining who their next quarterback would be. So they turned to Realmuto, who had a strong arm from baseball and what his football coach called the best set of legs he’s ever seen.
Immediately, Rose said, the team knew it made a great move.
“We put it on J.T.’s shoulders and those are some big, old broad shoulders,” Rose said. “I’m telling you. You could watch it every day in practice and in the locker room. Those kids respected him and they loved him. If he said something, it happened. I promise you.”
A night before playing Bishop Kelley, the entire Carl Albert football team stuffed into a pizza buffet a few miles from the school in Midwest City, outside Oklahoma City. They filled up every table and devoured so much pizza that Cicis had to close early. They returned to school and the coaching staff, as they did on the eve of every game, left the players on their own.
The players gathered in the locker room and listened as the seniors provided a final message before returning home. The biggest game of the season was a day away. One senior told the team to finish strong and stay together. Another reminded them of the game plan, reinforcing what it would take to topple Bishop Kelley. The floor was then passed to Realmuto, the player who led his team all season more by example than a motivational speech.
“He wasn’t one to give long speeches or anything. He didn’t really say much,” said defensive end Gatlin Arnold. “But he didn’t have to say much. We wanted to be on his level.”
Realmuto gave credit that night to the team’s offensive linemen. He told them how much he needed them against Bishop Kelley. The line, Croak said, was undersized. Realmuto’s praise made them feel like they could handle one of the state’s top defenses.
A night later, Realmuto needed his linemen for just one more play. The quiet quarterback had spoken and the head coach thought his plea for the ball was worth listening to. Carl Albert ran the quarterback keeper they had run nearly 20 times already that night, each time gaining an easy 2 or 3 yards.
This time, Bishop Kelley saw it coming. It stacked the gap between the guard and tackle, forcing Realmuto to bounce outside. His lineman held on just long enough for Realmuto to stretch the ball over the goal line before he was dragged to the turf. It was Realmuto’s 40th -- and final -- carry of the game.
The home crowd was silenced as Realmuto and his teammates celebrated. Carl Albert would win a state title two weeks later, but the next two games were blowouts. It was that night -- when the leader who led by example made sure his voice was heard -- that felt like the championship.
“I just remember the celebrations afterwards,” Realmuto said. “It was pretty fun.”