Prep football | Manatee QB Cord Sandberg wins third straight Herald All-Area Offensive Player of the Year award

jlembo@bradenton.comDecember 24, 2012 

BRADENTON -- A virtual next-door neighbor to Manatee High, Cord Sandberg has passed by Hawkins Stadium nearly every day of his young life.

When he looks at the venerable stadium now, however, Sandberg sees a litany of great moments rather than a blank pallet of possibilities.

"Everything that is Hawkins Stadium, there's a lot of good memories on that field," Sandberg said. "Games, plays ... a lot of awesome memories."

After three years, one state championship and a boatload of impressive statistics, Sandberg's days at Hawkins Stadium are done.

Those days were special, including this year, when Sandberg accrued 2,674 passing yards, 34 passing touchdowns and one interception in 265 attempts to go along with 611 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns and one interception in 265 attempts.

Consequently, he is the Herald All-Area Offensive Player of the Year for the third straight time.

Now the big question: Has Hawkins Stadium, or any stadium in this area, ever seen a better quarterback?

"He's probably in the top five," Manatee coach Joe Kinnan said. "It's hard to rank

kids in different eras."

It's a debate Sandberg, named the state's Class 7A Player of the Year in 2011 and '12, chooses to avoid.

"If other people have fun ranking different guys, that's fine," he said. "That's not for me."

His numbers make a compelling argument. A three-year starter, Sandberg threw for 7,716 yards, 78 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 72.7 percent of his passes (572 for 787).

He was a force running the ball, too, chewing up 2,003 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns.

And Sandberg time was winning time for the Hurricanes, who went 39-4 with three district titles, three region titles and a state championship while Sandberg was running the offense. The only teams to beat Manatee during the Sandberg era were Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (2010, '12), Maryland's Our Lady of Good Counsel (2011) and New Jersey's Don Bosco Prep (2011).

Those teams went on to win state championships in the year they defeated the Hurricanes, and Bosco was named a national champion that year, too.

But Manatee County's quarterbacking pool is a deep one.

Southeast's Adrian McPherson, the last Manatee County player to be named Mr. Football (2000), threw for 7,220 yards and 86 touchdowns in three years with the Seminoles before heading to Florida State.

Manatee's Willie Taggart, now the head football coach at USF, is the lone Canes quarterback to take Manatee to consecutive state title games (1993 and '94), and he threw for 2,823 yards and just six interceptions in two seasons. Preventing Taggart from throwing more was the presence of running back Shevin Wiggins, who totaled 4,298 rushing yards in his career and was named Florida's Mr. Football in 1993.

Tommie Frazier may have never won a state title with Manatee, but he totaled 4,288 yards of offense and 63 touchdowns in two seasons with the Canes before leading Nebraska to a pair of national championships and finishing runner-up in the 1995 Heisman Trophy balloting.

Frazier also made the Florida High School Athletic Association's list of the state's 100 greatest high school football players.

Peter Warrick, one the best athletes in Manatee County history, starred at wide receiver at Florida State and played the same position in the NFL. But he quarterbacked Southeast to a state title in 1994, a year after John Reaves threw for 1,451 yards for the Noles' first state championship team in '93.

And the guy Sandberg followed at Manatee, Brion Carnes, was a four-year starter who threw for 5,972 yards, rushed for 1,301, had a hand in 72 touchdowns and led Manatee to the Class 5A state final in 2009.

So how does Sandberg stack up?

"For what he does, he's real good," said John Sprague, Riverview's head coach from 1981 through 2010, Sandberg's sophomore year. "The difference between Tommie Frazier and him is Tommie didn't have the benefit of the shotgun. ... Tommie Frazier, if they would have backed him off the line of scrimmage, that would have scared me to death.

"I think Tommie might be the best this area has ever seen because of what he did in college stands up. As far as high school, I think the offense fit (Sandberg) perfect, and it would have fit Tommie perfect.

"Is Cord the best right now? Hands down."

Similar to Sprague, Southeast coach Paul Maechtle has coached and coached against some of the area's greatest quarterbacks, including Tracy Sanders, who led Manatee to its first state title in 1983 and now coaches the Canes' defensive backs.

"For getting the job done and doing what you do, he's right up there with McPherson," Maechtle said of Sandberg, "and all the good ones who have played around here. ... Tracy Sanders, Willie Taggart ... guys who were in those positions, doing what they do."

Sandberg was a true dual-threat quarterback and became the team's go-to running back in 2010 while Mike Blakely, who signed with Florida before transferring to Auburn, recovered from ankle injuries.

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds this year, Sandberg averaged 5.3 yards per carry during his career.

"Physically, he was so strong to be able to run the ball that he gave that added dimension," Maechtle said. "You've got high school kids who can run the ball, but not like this, who can take the hit and keep on ticking. Could he just be a drop back passer? I don't know if that's his cup of tea. But he fit that offense."

Dave Marino just wrapped his third year as Palmetto's head coach, but he is an area stalwart, having worked as an assistant at Southeast, Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch. He was on Maechtle's staff during the 1993 and '94 state championship seasons.

Marino echoed Sprague's sentiments about Sandberg running out of the shotgun while guys from the past lined up under center.

"They're all different skill sets," Marino said of the quarterbacks. "Adrian McPherson compared to Cord, it's not the same. They're different styles of quarterbacks. I've seen them all, and it's really tough to pick the best, or even a top three."

Marino said Sandberg is a hybrid, a guy who can run and pass with effectiveness.

"He's not the best runner, nor is he the best thrower," he said. "But he's pretty darn good. ... They weren't using the shotgun formation with Willie or Tommie. ... It's a different breed, a different animal."

Like all good quarterbacks, Sandberg benefited from the talent around him. He had two 1,000-yard rushers (Blakely and Trevon Walters, who reached the milestone this year), an athletic offensive line, talented receivers at his disposal and a stingy defense that routinely gave the offense great field position to work with.

But Sandberg had a knack for winning moments, especially his game-winning 21-yard run touchdown run over Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer in a 2011 Class 7A state semifinal, which was followed by the 258 total yards and two touchdowns he rang up against Jacksonville First Coast in the state title game.

"He's outstanding. He's not a fly-by-night kid," Sprague said. "He stays busy winning, and then the buzzer goes off. ... Plus, he's a great kid. ... I've known his dad (Chuck, who coaches the Canes' receivers) for a long time, and I'm so glad for his family, because that's a dream come true -- you get to coach your son."

It's a debate that will rage on, and one that will probably get a few more candidates over the years.

Sandberg isn't sure where he fits in, but he said he will have fond memories of a football career that included a state championship ring, playing games live on ESPN and ESPN2 and playing a pair of out-of-state games in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

"We had the opportunity to play and travel to a lot of different places," Sandberg said. "These last three years were absolutely amazing."

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