Most little boys who play youth sports dream that one day they too will be playing professionally like the stars they idolize and watch on TV every day.
For most, it’s just that.
But a fortunate few, through God-given talent, untold hours of hard work and getting the right opportunities and taking advantage of them, do indeed make their childhood dreams become reality and don a professional uniform.
On Friday in Berea, Madison Southern High School recognized one of its own, Luke Stocker, who achieved his dream of playing in the National Football League, for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, by retiring his high school jersey during a ceremony at halftime of the Eagles’ basketball game.
“It’s an honor to have your jersey retired by your high school and I’m very appreciative of them doing this for me,” Stocker said. “This is my first time back in three years. It’s great to be back and to have my family and my wife come and visit with me, along with the rest of my family. I’ve seen a lot of old friends and a lot of old faces. It’s nice being back.”
Stocker graduated from Southern in 2006.
He was an honor student at MSHS while excelling in both basketball and football for the Eagles.
He played three years for coach Shane Buttry’s basketball Eagles and was named to the All-44th District basketball team as a junior and made both the All-Region and All-State Academic teams in basketball and football.
He was a star for coach Doug Carter’s football Eagles for three years.
As a senior, he caught 36 passes for 560 yards and helped lead the Eagles to a 9-3 record.
Following his senior year he was named to the Class 3A All-District VII and All-Conference teams and played in the Kentucky-Tennessee All Star game.
He eventually chose to play football for the University of Tennessee, selecting the Volunteers over offers from 32 other schools.
During his four-year career as a tight end for Tennessee, he caught 85 passes for 956 yards.
Stocker was selected by Tampa Bay in the 2011 NFL draft and he just completed his third year as a tight end for the Buccaneers.
Stocker said he always felt like he had the talent to play in the NFL, he just needed to work hard to make it happen.
“I always thought that I could do it if the opportunities came, and they did come,” Stocker said. “I always had my mindset that every time I stepped on the field that I was going to do everything I could to capitalize on those opportunities. And I was fortunate enough to do that.”
While he’s now doing what he’s always dreamed of doing, Stocker said he’s not taking playing in the NFL for granted, and he’s going to enjoy every minute of it and do everything he can to make it last as long as possible.
“It’s such a blessing to play a sport as my profession. But in the NFL, they always say the letters stand for ‘Not For Long’,” Stocker said. “So I’m just trying to make the most of my time while I’m there. It’s a lot of fun and I’m going to do it as long as my body holds up and allows me to do it.”
Following the halftime ceremony, Stocker was in the hallway signing pictures, talking and having photos taken with a large group of wide-eyed kids; and more than a few starry-eyed adults.
When the game ended more than an hour later, he was still there with a big smile on his face signing items for the kids who had been patiently standing in line to meet him.
Stocker said he still remembers how awed he was when he had an opportunity to meet a professional athlete, so it made him feel good to sit and talk with the kids and do for them what his idols had done for him.
As far as the advice he had for the kids about achieving their dreams like he has, Stocker said simply, don’t waste one opportunity to put forth your best effort.
“The opportunities are there for everyone, no matter how small a town you come from. It’s just a matter of making the most of the opportunities when you get one,” Stocker said. “And that’s just through hard work, determination and dedication and always giving your best effort every time you get the opportunity.”
When asked by someone afterward if there was any advice he would give current Southern star Damien Harris, who recently committed to Alabama, Stocker said, “Damien is a great talent. There is a lot of talent at that level, and what I would tell him is that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”