As a youth football player, Zack Douglas wasn't exactly a sleek, speedy playmaker.
"I was 200 pounds as a 12-year-old," Douglas said. "I was a defensive lineman. That's all I could play.
"When I got to (Millville) high school, I told the coach I wanted to be a running back and a linebacker. I knew I needed to slim down."
As a senior for the South Jersey Group 5 champions, Douglas certainly looks like a player: He is 6-foot-0, 210 pounds. He is rangy, instinctive, competitive and versatile.
Douglas made a ton of tackles for the Thunderbolts from his inside linebacker spot. He knocked down passes, forced and recovered fumbles and made a major contribution as a punter, especially in the sectional title game against defending champion Toms River North Dec. 3 at Rowan University.
But Douglas is the Inquirer's Defensive Player of the Year in football as much for his leadership as anything else.
On a team dominated by star juniors, Douglas was the veteran who set the tone for the Thunderbolts through his play on the field and approach to the game.
"Phenomenal player, phenomenal leader," Millville coach Dennis Thomas said of Douglas. "He led the way for us. I just love that kid."
Douglas was one of just eight seniors who played regular roles for the Thunderbolts, who captured their first sectional title since 1975 by beating perennial powers Cherokee, Rancocas Valley and Toms River North in increasingly impressive playoff performances.
Millville's offense feature junior all-purpose stars Clayton Scott and Marcial Ramos, among others. But the team's drive to the title was fueled by a defense that contained standouts such as Cherokee running back John Lovett, Rancocas Valley running back Iverson Clement and Toms River North quarterback Mike Husni.
"We stopped a kid that's (likely) going to Ohio State," Thomas said of Clement. "We stopped a kid that's (likely) going to to Iowa (Lovett) and then we stop a kid that's probably the most prolific and exciting quarterback in the state of New Jersey (Husni).
"No one has faced that. We beat the No. 1 seed, we beat the No. 2 seed and Cherokee was right up there with them."
Douglas was front and center in those defensive efforts. He called the signals, filled the gaps, rallied his teammates when Cherokee, Rancocas Valley and Toms River North all seized the momentum.
"I take it very seriously," Douglas said of his leadership role. "I'm not the type of player to be selfish. I want to be the leader. I want to tell everybody what to do.
"I told my coach, 'You coach us like we're a championshp team and I'll lead us like we're a championship team.'"
Scott, who probably was the Thunderbolts' top all-around player, said Douglas was the team's unquestioned leader.
"There's so much I can say about him," Scott said after the 22-16 victory over a Toms River North team that had won 21 in a row. "He's a leader. He led us here. That kid is all heart."
Douglas made 131 tackles this season. He made 24 tackles for loss with seven sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Douglas showed his versatility in the sectional title game. His punting was a huge factor in Millville's advantage in field position, as he pinned Toms River North inside the 10 with a 43-yarder and a 47-yarder.
Then, after Thomas elected to take an intention safety and make the score 20-16 with less than a minute to play, Douglas unleashed a 59-yard free kick that sailed over the Mariners' return men and forced the Shore Conference team deep into its down territory.
"I've always had strength in my leg," Douglas said. "I had the wind at my back. I just boomed it over their heads."
When Millville's defense registered a safety on the last play of the gane, Douglas was among the Thunderbolts' more emotional players, embracing teammates and racing to the stands to celebrate with family and friends.
And when it came time to pose for the post-game photographer, it was Douglas who held the trophy high above his teammates' heads.
"I'm a championship player," Douglas said. "We're a championship team."
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