Jared Lorenzen played a more than minor role in ending Sheldon Clark’s best football season ever in 1998.

Twelve years later, Jim Matney had moved from coaching the Cardinals to Johnson Central, where, as Matney tells it, “the rascal got us again.”

Mighty Highlands clung to a one-score lead and had the ball late in the first half of the 2010 Class 5A, Region 3 final.

“He kept wanting them to throw deep, to go for it,” Matney said, referring to the Bluebirds’ quarterbacks coach, Lorenzen, who may have held the title of most overqualified high school assistant football coach anywhere. He by then was the University of Kentucky’s all-time leader in total offense, a Super Bowl ringholder and 1998 Mr. Football.

“And I was told that the rest of the (Highlands) staff was wanting to kneel it out, go into the half,” Matney continued, “and the people on the sidelines said that he just stayed on them, and finally they gave in, and sure enough, right there, right before the half, they just threw a deep bomb.”

Bluebirds QB Patrick Towles, who would follow in Lorenzen’s footsteps calling signals for the Wildcats, indeed found Austin Sheehan for a critical 32-yard scoring strike with seven seconds left in the second quarter of Highlands’ eventual 21-14 victory in Paintsville.

Then-Bluebirds coach Dale Mueller corroborated Matney’s account of what led up to that play.

“I forget what the play was, but it was some type of deep pass that we called as a result of him wanting to do it,” Mueller said of Lorenzen. “He was just a football genius. He just saw things so much better than everybody else did.”

Lorenzen died last Wednesday at 38. During his time playing at Highlands from 1996-99, he competed a handful of times against northeastern Kentucky teams with the football and basketball Bluebirds.

Alan Short paid witness to Lorenzen already displaying his nimble and strong-armed traits early on, even if Short had his hands so full he didn’t fully take it in at the time.

Lawrence County visited Fort Thomas in 1996 for the second round of the Class 3A playoffs. Short was a freshman second-string quarterback for the Bulldogs. Lorenzen was a sophomore backup for the Bluebirds.  

Things went badly for Lawrence County almost immediately. Starting quarterback Jason Michael went down due to injury less than nine minutes into a game Highlands led 48-0 at halftime.

At that point, Mueller inserted the Bluebirds’ backups — a group that included Lorenzen.

“I don’t remember getting to watch (Lorenzen) a whole lot because I was being calmed down by (coach) Chuke Williams and talking through some things trying to figure out a way to score some points,” said Short, who replaced Michael. “I remember when I stepped into the huddle there, I couldn’t even call the play. (Senior back) Mike Copley would have to call the play because I was just stuttering all over myself.”

Lawrence County, piloted by Short, scored 30 points in the second half. Lorenzen completed four of seven passes and hit a 61-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the Bluebirds’ 55-30 victory.

When Short had time to process the events of that night, he realized what he’d seen from Highlands’ lefty backup was “something different ... that’s pretty special.”

“It was fascinating, honestly,” said Short, now Lawrence County’s coach. “We’d never seen a kid that big, and this was in the days when everybody was still under center and running the ball, and here they are throwing the ball all over the yard, and this guy is their backup. He was just a sophomore and he’s their backup and he’s still making plays.”

Two years later, Lorenzen was Highlands’ starter en route to Mr. Football honors as a senior and led the Bluebirds to Inez for a Class 3A state semifinal.

Lorenzen told The Daily Independent after the game that the Cardinals “hit me as hard as I’ve been hit,” but he still threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns to lead Highlands past Sheldon Clark, 44-28.

Matney remembered one play in particular — the Bluebirds’ first touchdown of the game in front of an “electric” crowd.

“(Lorenzen) scrambled and we hit him with a blitz. We hit him like three times and we couldn’t bring him down,” Matney said. “He scrambled out to the side and threw a (deflected) pass to the end zone and it was so forceful that it went all the way over into the corner of the end zone and one of their receivers (Nate Birkley) dove and caught it. His passes had a velocity on them that you rarely see.”

Lorenzen made his name slinging footballs and dodging tacklers, but he was an effective basketball forward, too. He and the Bluebirds took out two northeastern Kentucky teams in as many days in the 1997 Sweet Sixteen.

Highlands knocked off Greenup County, 48-45, in the state quarterfinals and toppled defending state champion Paintsville, 74-71, in overtime the next day.

A former Musketeer and an ex-Tiger both remembered seeing the same two qualities in Lorenzen and his teammates: physicality and sportsmanship.

Paintsville’s J.R. VanHoose had three Division I-caliber athletes — big ones — to deal with in the Bluebirds interior. Joining Lorenzen (listed then at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds) inside was Derek Smith (6-foot-6), who went on to play football with Lorenzen at UK, and center Eric Glaser (6-foot-8, according to VanHoose), who became a pitcher in the Red Sox minor league organization.

“What I remember especially about Derek and Jared was just how physical they were,” VanHoose said. “They were athletic, too. They weren’t just big guys that were clobbering and fouling people. They just mixed it up.”

Greenup County’s Jeff Large recalled Lorenzen being knocked out of the quarterfinal the night before after an elbow caught him in the mouth, where he wore braces. He returned in plenty of time to secure the rebound of a would-be game-tying Musketeers 3-pointer and fling it out of danger as time expired.

“It took everything we had to be within three,” said Large, who had hit a trey to lift Greenup County within two points with 35 seconds remaining before Lorenzen hit one free throw. “Jared, once he got the ball inside, he was just so big and so physical, there was really nobody that could match up against him.”

The “heated” nature of that game, as Large described it, dissipated at the buzzer.

“After beating us, I remember (Lorenzen) and Derek Smith both came over and really had good sportsmanship, talked about how good of a game it was,” Large said. “Not something you typically see out of players at that age and at that stage in the state tournament.”

VanHoose remembered a similar interaction the next day after Highlands eliminated Paintsville.

“I can remember still sitting on the bench even after the game was over, and (Lorenzen) came over and was a great sportsman,” VanHoose said. “Wasn’t cocky or anything like that, very humble and gracious.”

Jason Rollins, Lawrence County’s offensive line coach, started for four years as Kentucky’s left guard and blocked for Lorenzen for three of them. He fondly remembered playing golf with Lorenzen in the offseason and protecting the man by then known as the “Hefty Lefty.”

“Blocking for Jared was exciting because at times people really didn’t know who the quarterback was,” Rollins said, laughing. “He fit in so well with the offensive linemen. He was a natural leader, both on and off the field, and a fierce competitor.”

Mueller recalled Lorenzen’s disarming effect on what might have been a hostile Johnson Central crowd on that November 2010 night in Paintsville.

“Every time we played, it was just such a close, hard-fought game,” Mueller said, “and I can remember going there and getting off the bus and people at Johnson Central are all excited and they see Jared, and it was like then it stopped being a football game. It was like a dinner party. The people at Johnson Central are coming up and talking, asking questions.

“It was like we weren’t gonna play a football game later on; we were just gonna have a social hour.”

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zklemme@dailyindependent.com