Offers pouring in for SHS middle linebacker
By Halei Lamb | May 6, 2020 9:42 am
by HALEI LAMB
Generally speaking, the middle linebacker is a hard-nosed man. He’s big, strong, and intimidating, making him the center of attention on the defensive side of the ball. He’s physical, taking down even the best running backs in the game. At face value, the “mike” linebacker, as he is sometimes called, is unfeeling. Zabrien Harden, Swainsboro High School’s middle linebacker, is all of those on the gridiron. (Off the field is a completely different story, though.) At 6’3” and 230 pounds, he’s physically similar to Luke Kuechly, who played middle linebacker for the Carolina Panthers; that particular eight-year NFL veteran stands at 6’3” himself and has Harden by just 10 pounds. Clearly, the rising senior student-athlete for SHS has the build for greatness. With a well-developed football IQ and outstanding grades, he has garnered the attention of numerous major football programs—and yet, because of two serious injuries, he hasn’t reached his full potential. As Harden’s final year of high school football approaches and the time to make the biggest decision of his life to date draws nearer, he has tunnel vision determination.
Like most kids, Harden’s athletic development started with pee-wee football at the local rec department. Sprinkle in some afternoon football with his friends throughout the years, along with equal parts natural talent, a gritty sense of determination, and quality coaches at the school level starting in seventh grade onward, and the result is a formidable opponent.
“Zabrien started playing football when he was 3-years-old. He’s 17 now,” his mother, Pamela Harden, said. “He has accomplished a lot in those 14 years, but he has overcome even more. If I said I’m proud of my son, that would be an understatement.”
As a freshman on varsity, such a promising future looked like an uphill battle. When Coach Scott Roberts returned in 2017 to lead the Tigers, the culture began turning and the expectations about how the football team would compete and fare overall changed as well. As those developments unfolded, the team’s athleticism improved, too, so playing time became harder to come by for underclassmen than it had been in years prior to Roberts’ return to Tiger Town. Harden was one of the many freshmen who rode the bench that year, but he stuck with the team and the process. He finished the year and experienced a winning season, which had been hard sought for by Swainsboro teams for a few years previously.
“I didn’t get to play a lot as a freshman. I played middle school starting in seventh grade, suited up for Jefferson County in the eighth grade, and came back to Swainsboro that spring. Coach Roberts was new and I wanted to play, so I started going to spring workouts for my ninth grade year,” Harden explained. “I knew we were trying to turn our program around and we wanted to win. I knew there were bigger, better, more experienced guys than me that year, so when I didn’t get to play much, I didn’t get discouraged. I knew if I worked hard, my day would eventually come.”
When summer workouts rolled around, Harden gave no thought to his little playing time as a ninth grader and went full-speed ahead in preparation for his sophomore year. He was assigned to Coach Dwight Smith as a defensive end, and he earned a starting spot. Harden and company picked up a region championship win, but not before he went out with a shoulder injury.
“Throughout the 2018 season, I was struggling with my shoulder. It was going numb a lot, and the trainer thought it was a pinched nerve. I kept playing until I couldn’t anymore,” Harden said. “I was playing defensive end at the time. I don’t remember what game it was, but the lineman went down. I squeezed, and as I was squeezing, the running back was coming to me. I was standing there, then the lineman came and hit me. I felt my shoulder pop. It just went numb. I went and saw my orthopedic, Dr. Gaines, and he told me I had a shoulder contusion. After he gave me that diagnosis, Coach Roberts sat me out the rest of the year because that was pretty much my only option anyway.”
Again, just like the year before, Harden stayed the course. He continued to go to practice, dress out, and travel to games with the team, but he also added in rehabilitation. Through resistance training, he went from struggling to lift a 20-pound dumbbell to his normal self, perhaps even an improved version, given the amount of lower body and cardio he incorporated into his regimen. He would start to see the fruits of that tough labor the following year.
By the time his junior year started in the summer of 2019, Harden had, according to Coach Roberts, grown one of the team’s better players. The man at the helm of Tiger football, along with the rest of his coaching staff, especially linebacker coach Morgan Jersey, decided to make Harden the middle man so teams couldn’t run away from him. The coaching staff approached Harden with the proposition of switching positions to middle linebacker, and he accepted without hesitation.
“I felt good about it from the start. I understood how well the coaches knew me. I mean, they saw me come up as an underclassman. They watched me in the weight room. They were with me every day. If they thought I was versatile enough, if Coach Jersey thought I was good enough to play middle linebacker, that’s what I was going to try to do.”
Harden spent that summer working out at mike linebacker, and he was a natural in that position. His main job is controlling the defense, and his quiet yet effective sense of leadership, coupled with his menacing build, yielded the perfect man for the job.
“I liked playing defensive end, but I was excited to make the change because it’s an important role and it gave me a chance to help my team. Plus, it opened up a lot more doors for me.”
This past year’s season was going extremely well for Harden until his knee became a problem. He tweaked his meniscus during practice but continued to play on it, even after being advised by the trainer the inevitable would happen if he didn’t take a break. Over the next few weeks, his knee progressively got worse, culminating with a season-ended lock-up during the second quarter of one of Swainsboro’s oldest and biggest rivalry games on Tiger Field against Vidalia toward the end of the season in early November.
“I was helping my teammate, Ced Seabrough, tackle a receiver. I helped him out, tackled the guy… When I got up, I actually felt fine until I tried to walk. When I stepped, it was like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t walk!’ I stood there for a few more seconds and tried to walk again, but I couldn’t. I waved over our trainer, and she and some other people helped me off the field,” Harden recalled. “I went to the hospital and had some images taken. Sure enough, my season was cut short again.”
Fortunately, he had played well enough up until that injury to catch the attention of some college coaches, recording 86 tackles on the year before he went out and having enough stirring plays to create an impressive highlight reel to send out on social media when the time was right. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ced Seabrough and his twin brother, Fred, were having tremendous seasons of their own, beckoning even more collegiate attention to Swainsboro’s team. Coastal Carolina University’s Coach Cody Ladutko paid a visit to the three young men one day during school, and Harden received his first collegiate offer that afternoon. He posted the offer on Twitter a few hours later, tweeted out his film, and other schools eventually began pursuing him as well.
“When I went out after the Vidalia game, I was extremely bummed. I had started to get some attention, which was nice, don’t get me wrong, but I was scheduled to go to East Carolina University for my first gameday visit the Saturday after the Vidalia game. That kind of broke my heart. Plus, your junior year is the most important year. It’s the year you put your name out there for coaches. I didn’t feel like I had done enough before I went out, so when Dr. Gaines told me I needed surgery, it was a blow to the chest.”
Still, the youngster kept his head up and faced the hard truth like a champ. Around three weeks later, during Thanksgiving break to be exact, he went under the knife. Harden then underwent months of rehabilitation for a second spell, only this time for a lower-body extremity.
As those tough weeks of rehab trudged on, Harden found solace in the positives. His team was on fire; they would eventually make an encouraging playoff run to the Sweet 16. The best part, however, was the breath of relief, the weight off his shoulders, as offers continued to roll in after the season ended, despite missing valuable playing time because of his medical sideline.
Today, he has 12 offers from major universities: Troy, CCU, Georgia State, Kansas, Army, Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee State University, Georgia Southern, Fordham, Holy Cross, Tulane, and Gardner-Webb. That list is not reflective of the numerous other schools who are pursuing him but haven’t offered as of press time. Coach Roberts is certain other offers are going to follow, including some Power 5 schools. The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the recruiting process in an unprecedented manner, but both the head coach and his middle linebacker, who is certain to be a force next year if only he remains healthy, feel good about his future.
“Getting recruited is nice, no doubt, but it’s stressful at the same time. You have to keep up with what time you’re supposed to talk to this coach, what time you’re supposed to talk to that coach. I wouldn’t say I’m feeling the pressure right now because, yeah, I just got cleared to practice, but we can’t have spring workouts yet because of the virus… I can’t go visit anywhere because of coronavirus. It’s just different right now than what it would be if we weren’t going through a pandemic, but I’m trying to make the best of it. We’re not in school right now, so I have to make sure I’m staying on top of things academically the best I can, and I’m trying to ease myself back into doing lower body exercises. I feel good, though. It’s going to work out.”
Looking to the future, the 3.5 GPA student is anxious to see which schools pull the trigger next. One institution, the University of Georgia, is admittedly at the top of his list of hopefuls, but he hasn’t ruled out any one of the 50-odd schools who have contacted him to date. He found both Georgia State and Troy’s campuses pleasant. In addition, he is extremely anxious to visit Kansas because of its rich basketball history, and he is trying valiantly to convince his mom to go with him to visit Tulane in New Orleans.
“I realize this is such a blessing. A lot of these schools are players’ dream schools, and to be a priority for those schools is surreal. I know playing at the next level is a privilege that comes with a lot of pressure. I’m going to major in sports management, and I’m trying to keep in mind that I always need a back-up plan in case football doesn’t work out. I’m going to work my hardest, compete, and grind it out and hope to be an important part of a college team, but no matter what happens, I’m going to make sure I get it done in the classroom. My goal is to try and turn four years into 40 years,” Harden said.
For now, the plan is to take everything one step at a time, starting with getting back right physically from his meniscus injury. Harden says he and his team are ready to get after it. Namely, they are hungry to follow up the school’s basketball state championship win with a football title. Coach Roberts said Harden will inevitably be a huge part of the 2020 team because many of the younger guys look up to him and his fellow upperclassmen lend to him the confidence to run the defense, which remains a key part of Swainsboro athletics, no matter the sport. (The 2000 championship football team as well as the 2019 state championship basketball team are both examples of how Swainsboro’s athletic programs prioritize defense to win state titles.) The expectations are set, and Harden is prepared to do whatever it takes to lead his team while building onto his resumé and bringing more limelight to the pool of athleticism hidden here in rural Georgia.
“I know I won’t make my decision today or even tomorrow, but I’m extremely excited to take the next step. Playing in college is going to elevate my life in so many ways and I’m thankful for that already, but I’m also really grateful for the opportunity to show people that we’ve got real athletes here if you’ll take the time to look for us.”
Similarly, underneath it all, if you take the time to look—underneath his towering stature and powerful body, tucked away beneath the tough exterior that makes up his middle linebacker DNA, is a humble, hard-working, mature, and ultimately grateful young man. When asked who, if anyone, has helped him along the way and should receive some credit for his accomplishments, he looked at his mom sitting next to him during his interview.
“She’s made me who I am. She never let me give up. She always kept my head on straight, always made me put God first, always made me study and do my homework and pass my tests,” Harden said. “I wouldn’t be where I am, getting these offers, without her.”
To that note, Pamela says she’s thrilled to see her son’s hard work pay off—but she’s also hopeful for the other athletes born, raised, and developed right here at home. “I’m so grateful ZaBrien has turned out the way he has. Coming from prematurity to maturity the way he has is nothing short of a blessing. He’s been through some struggles, but he kept his head up and did right. I think he’s a great example of what perseverance and hard work are,” she said, “but I’m not selfish about his accomplishments in the slightest. I want every single Swainsboro Tiger to be well off. There’s plenty of room in this world for everybody to be successful on the playing field and in life.”
Fittingly, Harden sees his experience as an opportunity to set an example for his younger sister and the athletes who come after him. His message? You can do anything you set your mind to if you have the right people in your corner.
In Harden’s corner are his teachers, along with Coach Roberts, Coach Smith, Coach Jersey, and the rest of the football staff, all of whom believed in him throughout the years and developed him without relent. Lastly, he’s thankful for each and every college who has given thought to his abilities. All that’s left to do is seal the deal with his John Smith on a National Letter of Intent—hopefully soon.