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The Last Jacket

Aug. 21, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn Sting Daily

Spend 14 minutes and 57 seconds with Tony Zenon, and you’ll learn that the last member of Georgia Tech’s 2010 signing class is flexible. He’s had little choice. He’s had to grow up faster than most as well.

You’ll learn, too, that Zenon, a 5-foot-8, 174-pound A-back from New Orleans by way of Albany (Ga.) who doesn’t know the origin of his surname – “I really can’t tell you, but I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones who have that name; I’ve never found anybody else with it, ” he said. — has quite a story.

Make that stories, plural.

He grew up and lived in New Orleans, yet fled with 23 friends and family members in the hours before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They set out for Texas, never made it, turned 180 degrees to the east and landed in South Georgia.

Zenon never went back to New Orleans, at least not to live.

That tale, which we’ll get to, is interesting, but it cannot match the one about how when the world stopped spinning around Zenon and most of his traveling party of 24 moved back to the Big Easy, his mother (Tonia) and stepfather (Phelonius) turned to their eighth grader and left him with a decision that was not easy at all.

“They kind of put it on me; they said if you want to stay, we can,” he said. “When we first moved to Albany, I wanted to go back home. I didn’t know anybody, but after a while I got adjusted and they welcomed me with open arms. That made it an easy decision.”

Not yet in high school, Zenon was planning his future. It was about education. He ended up at Deerfield Windsor, a very small private school in Albany, where longtime football coach Allen Lowe became something of a bonus father. Had Zenon and his immediate family, which included a younger brother (he now has two younger siblings), the future might not have turned so bright.

“In New Orleans, the school I was going to go to [Gregory] was OK, but I probably was going to go to St. Augustine,” he said. “That was pretty good, but I don’t think it would compare to the school I went to in Albany education-wise. Deerfield Windsor is a private school, a college preparatory school, and the reason I went there is my dad preaches that grades come first.

“I felt like I could have played anywhere, and I tried to go to some other schools but because we didn’t have transcripts it would have taken longer for them to accept me.”

Zenon may be Tech’s smallest player. He put up some huge numbers in high school.

You don’t rush for 2,264 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior without drawing attention to yourself whether or not you play at a small school outside of the Georgia High School Association.

There was that element to be considered in recruiting, and when Tech approached Zenon there were other hurdles between him and becoming a Yellow Jacket.

There were no scholarships left. In fact, another A-back candidate in Alabama, Deon Hill, had already been told by Tech that if another scholarship became available, he was next in line for it. So Zenon was second in line. “They had to give him a scholarship before they gave it to me,” Zenon said. “Tech was the place I wanted to come, but the gray shirt thing kind of turned me off.”

Then, two offensive linemen, Joe Gilbert and Clyde Yandell, graduated and opted to attend graduate school elsewhere (they’re at Georgia State now). Scholarships came open for Hill and Zenon.

Up to then considering Georgia Southern and Marshall ahead of others, Zenon was about to become a Jacket – the last one of 2010. “My family came here and talked to [chaplain] Derrick Moore, and that was a big reason they liked it because he’s from Albany, too,” he said. “They liked the facility and the coaches, and when Coach [Paul] Johnson came to the school that pretty much sealed it.”

If not for Hurricane Katrina, Tony Zenon would almost certainly be somewhere else now.

Yet where once he seemed like a character in Stephen King’s “The Stand,” which is to say on a road to nowhere, he’s now a Jacket.

“Initially, we wanted to go to Texas, but the roads were blocked there was so much traffic. We really didn’t have a plan B,” he recalled. “It was a van, an SUV and two cars. It was like 24 of us, our family and friends, cousins, my aunt, grandma. We probably had two outfits each. We thought we were going back because there had been more than one hurricane before.

“We pretty much pulled over on the side of the road. I was in the back seat, in eighth grade, pretty much not in the conversation. We decided to go the other way. We went through Alabama, and Florida and all those places. [Albany] was the only place that had hotels. “

So Albany became home.

On Monday, Tech begins class and Zenon starts out on yet another road to his future. Yes, he faces long odds on the football field. Nothing new there; he’s overcome before. Just don’t waste your time trying to convince him that the big numbers which turned the attention of college coaches toward him in the first place were built on the backs of other small players from small schools.

“Competition is competition to me,” Zenon said. “I don’t pay attention to that; look where I’m at now.”

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