By Marty Farmer
When Oak Park and River Forest High School senior running back Antonio Cannon scored his first touchdown this season no one was happier than teammate Jamarri Watson.
"I remember Antonio scoring his first touchdown in the corner of the end zone against Lincoln-Way East," Watson said. "I ran all the way down the field and said, 'I love you, man.'"
Cannon's 57-yard TD run at 10:55 of the second quarter set the tone for OPRF's 14-13 victory against the visiting Griffens in the season opener. The Huskies haven't looked back since that significant victory and are 5-0 after Friday night's 44-20 Homecoming win against Downers Grove North.
Cannon and Watson have been the catalysts for the OPRF offense. They share an unbreakable bond as tandem running backs. The dynamic duo have also spent countless hours together lifting weights, studying film and competing as teammates on the OPRF track and field team.
They run the 40-yard-dash in 4.5 and 4.6 seconds, respectively. Their friendship is even closer.
"Everything that is happening now was expected by us," Cannon said. "We've built a close bond and chemistry. We push each other, period. It's a blessing to play with Jamarri and I'm glad we can share the load as running backs."
While they have benefitted from each other's company in the backfield, opposing teams have found the Huskies' top two ball carriers a nightmare to defend. Their strength, speed and versatility provide an effective 1-2 punch for OPRF.
First-year starting quarterback Jeremy Hunt certainly appreciates the contributions of his backfield mates.
"It's nice because I don't really feel like I have to run as much," Hunt said. "It's not a huge responsibility for me as the quarterback like it was for Lloyd (Yates) last year. I can just dump the ball off to those guys and watch them make all the cool moves."
Cannon leads the team in rushing with 458 yards and four touchdowns on 54 carries, while Watson has 49 carries for 304 yards with four TDs. In the passing game, Watson is second in receptions with 10 for 129 yards and a TD and Cannon has caught four passes for 44 yards.
The versatile pair leads the Huskies in all-purpose yards by a wide margin, with Watson at 522 yards and Cannon close behind with 502 yards. Collectively, they have accounted for 9 of the team's 25 TDs this season.
Those stats become even more impressive when you consider that they only carry the ball about 10 times each per game, so they're maximizing opportunities. Their team-centric attitude makes it possible.
"Antonio and Jamarri are very unselfish because they knew we were going to use multiple [running] backs this season," OPRF coach John Hoerster said. "It's not a system where we are going to put a great athlete on the sideline. We are going to get both of them on the field and give them touches. Both of them are very creative and can make things happen in multiple ways on the field.
"And they are different guys because 'Tone [Cannon] has been on the varsity since his sophomore year whereas Jammari backed up [De'Viaughn] Benion last year. Jamarri has done a tremendous job with more playing time and 'Tone is kind of our salty veteran who's been there and done that. He understands the program and our expectations."
Happy to be Huskies
The path that brought the friends together was also fortuitous. Both lived in Chicago for different lengths of time. Cannon grew up in River Forest while Watson moved to Oak Park the summer before his freshman year.
"Moving to River Forest helped me a lot because I was exposed to football and I've met so many good people who care about me," Cannon said. "I feel very blessed to be in this position to have success. Football has changed my life. It's made me a better student and I've learned a lot on and off the field."
Watson's life changed for the better when he moved to Oak Park after stints living on Chicago's South and West sides. Although he didn't come up through the Oak Park-River Forest Youth Football program, his adjustment to becoming a Huskie has been relatively smooth.
"When I first came to Oak Park, I didn't know anybody. I wasn't even going to play football," Watson recalled. "When I heard about the Little Huskies team, though, that went 12-0 and won a championship, I was so happy because I knew I could be part of a great team. I heard about people like Antonio, Jamal Baggett and Mike Hayden. Since my freshman year, Antonio and I have talked about winning a state championship at Oak Park."
The Huskies will have their hands full winning the tough West Suburban Conference Silver Division, let alone a state title, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Led by senior standouts like Allen Stallings, Jahmari Moore and Sam Francis, the defense is one of the best in the Chicago area. Offensively, the Huskies are averaging 35.2 points with Hunt, a rapidly developing offensive line, and impressive depth in the wide receiving corps.
However, when push comes to shove, particularly along the line of scrimmage, the game plan is pretty simple.
"Our goal is just to make a hole and let these little guys get through it," OPRF center Jay Heininger said. "Antonio and Jamarri are both phenomenal running backs, so we just have to help create lanes for them."
Indeed, Cannon and Watson represent the latest contributors in a line of stellar running backs who have donned the orange and blue. In recent years, Levell Coppage, Jakari Cammon, Baggett and Hayden all flourished in the OPRF backfield.
It's a tradition of excellence Cannon has embraced.
"When I was a Little Huskie, I loved hearing about Jakari Cammon and Jamal Baggett," Cannon said. "All I ever wanted to do was play running back for this team and this high school. It's a privilege and an honor to play for OPRF.
"Jamarri and I are just the next guys in line. I keep in touch with the past running backs, and they trust us to uphold the tradition and lead the team by working hard and setting an example for the younger players. The sky's the limit for us this season."
Both players hope to extend their football careers at the college level next year. In the interim, to paraphrase a cheer from the Huskies' post-game huddles, it's a great day to be a Huskie for Cannon and Watson.
"Coach Hoerster always tells us to take advantage of each day that's given to us because it's not coming back," Cannon said. "I try to make the most of my time on the field. I'm enjoying practice and the games, but being around Jamarri and the rest of the guys is the best part."
For a complete recap of the Huskies' 44-20 against Downers Grove North, click link below.