Ironman football is somewhat synonymous with Class A play, and C.J. Ackles has served as the textbook example of that during his Mount Zion High School career.
The senior standout has filled many roles over the past four years, but this season he's really put his body to the test at key positions across all phases of the game.
After starting at wide receiver the first three seasons offensively, Ackles has made a seamless transition to quarterback, while remaining a lockdown corner on defense and delivering his most unheralded role on special teams as an all-state punter who flips the field time and time again for MZ's star-studded defense.
It should come as no surprise that the ultra-athletic and versatile Ackles is a three-sport star at Mount Zion, where he shines on the hardwood in the winter and diamond in the spring, but right now he's enjoying a historic run on the gridiron upon leading the program to its first-ever state semifinal showdown on Friday night at 7:30 against fifth-seeded Clinch County at The Boneyard in Homerville.
Coming off the biggest win in program history — to date — last week in the 10-6 upset at top-ranked Manchester, Ackles, with his typical even-keel temperament, is taking everything in stride as his prep career winds down.
"We've just got to prepare for the game and make sure everybody is ready. You can't let the game be bigger than yourself. You've just got to go out there and play and see what happens," Ackles said.
And while he displays a laid-back demeanor off the field, the four-year starter is high energy any time he steps between the lines.
Last week proved to be another example of that as he shook off defenders from one of the most physical and athletic fronts in the state to keep drives alive and his team in the game.
"There was times he was under duress from the time the ball was snapped, and he was able to escape, throw some balls away and keep from taking a sack. Just the balls he was able to put up with people hanging on top of him was pretty incredible," noted MZ head coach Brad Gordon. "If it wasn't for us to be able to throw the ball deep the other night, that was about all the offense we had. We had to big-play them."
With the season on the line, Ackles marched the eighth-seeded Eagles (10-2) 88 yards in one minute and 32 seconds on a pair of deep balls before delivering the dagger in the form of a nine-yard touchdown strike to Iaan "Mike-Mike" Cousin to stun the No. 1 team in the land on its home field.
But that was just one-third of his evening.
His defensive command at cornerback and punting prowess were equally important, as Gordon noted that his overall value to the team is immeasurable.
"Him flipping the field is huge," Gordon said. "He's just another weapon. As long as we make them have to drive the ball, sooner or later we know if we can get people behind the chains, good things will happen for the defense.
"Then the other good thing about C.J., we can put him on their go-to guy and we've basically been able to take that factor away from opposing teams. Just having him as a lockdown corner, it makes a difference when it comes to calling a defense, that's for sure."
Ackles isn't the only Eagle ironman among this bunch, and he stressed how all the work the team puts in during the offseason is paying off now.
"I prepare myself before the season. I stay in shape and I'm going to do whatever my team needs me to do to win," Ackles said.
Whatever it takes, even if that means punting.
Not too many star athletes sacrifice their time from other aspects of the game to work on punting, but Ackles has been a natural at it over the past few years.
But, again, it's all about doing his part to help the team and he was quick to point out that it takes all 11 in every phase to be successful.
"Punting has been a big part of our playoff run and all that with pinning them deep," Ackles said. "On defense, it ain't just me. We've got 10 more guys on defense who are doing a great job. We've got a great coaching staff making a good plan against every team."
The Panthers (10-2) present the latest challenge for the Eagles on their improbable quest for the Class A crown. Clinch County is no stranger to this stage with six state championships to its credit and a long-standing tradition of postseason success.
Although MZ can't match that history, it can make a case for being the best team this season. A win on Friday night would send the Eagles into the state championship game on Dec. 9 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, but all the focus right now is on Clinch County.
"We've got to worry about this game first. Get this job done and we'll move on to whoever we've got next," said Ackles, who is being recruited by several FCS Division I programs as a defensive back.
And as the Eagles prepare for the biggest game in the history of the program — for now, at least — Gordon couldn't think of a better leader to carry the torch for the program.
"It was funny. I read the quote in the paper the other day and he said, 'It's just a game.' And that's the way he approaches it. He doesn't get bent out of shape one way or the other," Gordon said. "He doesn't get real high or real low. He's just about playing. That's the kind of leadership we want. As a team, we can't get real high or real low. We've just got to focus on what we've got to do, and he does it by example every day."