Lee Almanza always knew about tough competition, about the need to adjust, and to make the most out of what life brings.
He had played high school football at the Class 5A level in Houston - which, many would argue, is the nation?s most fertile ground for talent. And he had excelled.
Almanza didn’t get the kind of scholarship offers he’d hoped for - brand-name schools like Texas and Oklahoma passed him by - but the smart, powerful tackle wasn’t completely overlooked.
Southern wanted him. So did Prairie View.
Almanza chose Southern.
At the time, he said, he wanted to focus on school and avoid hometown distractions.
There was one other reason, too: At the time, Southern had won 18 of its last 19 games against Prairie View. The Jaguars were contenders in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Panthers were an afterthought.
Times have changed.
Now, almost four years later, Almanza is still looking for his first win against PV.
This week, the Panthers head into A.W. Mumford Stadium for a surprisingly important game. They stand alone atop the Western Division, but Southern is only a half-game behind.
So of course, Saturday’s game is important to everyone. But ...
“It’s kind of a personal match for me,” he said.
His best friend from Madison High School is Le’Darryae Groover, the Panthers’ starting tailback. Almanza is tired of congratulating Groover on yet another win.
And who can blame him?
In four seasons at Southern, Almanza has been the ultimate good soldier, playing four different positions on the offensive line, working toward a championship that never materialized.
Almanza had finally settled in (and excelled) at right tackle until this spring, when the coaching staff asked the 6-foot-3, 293-pound lineman to move to center.
Mitchell reasoned that Almanza probably couldn’t make it to an NFL camp as a tackle. With his size, however, he can play inside.
As it turned out, the move came at exactly the right time. More than ever, Southern needs Almanza’s experience in the middle.
At center, he has to survey the entire defense, then provide helpful hits to the two guards on either side.
And boy, has that knowledge come in handy lately.
Thanks to a parade of injuries, Almanza’s neighbors have nearly changed on a play-by-play basis. In two games alone, he’s been flanked by five different guards. Four of them are freshmen.
“So whoever it is, I have to direct them,” Almanza said. “Even if they know their assignment, I have to remind them. ... But they’re going to be all right.”
It seems that way. SU’s rushing attack has picked up lately, and if that continues, the Jaguars could become a better-than-.500 team.
For now, however, Almanza is focused on Saturday. Just once, he’d love to topple Prairie View.
He, more than anyone, has earned the right to know how that feels.