“I think he plays the game like he is in a video game, and only he has the cheat codes.”
“When he breaks one of his long runs, it fires up the rest of the troops.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is, he wants to compete at everything.”
That’s Timberlake High senior Joey Follini’s coaches when describing his passion for the game, whatever it might be.
After going 1-7 in his sophomore season, Follini wasn’t pleased with that.
Instead of just sitting back, Follini — and the rest of his teammates — got to work.
“It was pretty upsetting,” Follini said. “And the team responded really well to it. We could have just accepted that we were going to be a bad football team. But the next offseason, we put a lot of work in and did the things to get better. Last year, we were pretty good. But this year, we’re even better because we’ve put the time in to get better.”
That 2017 season, Timberlake went 1-7 overall and 1-2 in Intermountain League play. It was the first time since 2008 the Tigers had been beaten in league play and first time since 2002 they’d missed out on the playoffs.
“We were the first team not to win the Intermountain League in something like 10 years,” Follini said. “It was pretty embarrassing really. But we didn’t want to be like that anymore after that season.”
In 2017, Timberlake coach Roy Albertson missed the final four games of the season after suffering a heart attack before practice.
“He’s been there for me for a long time,” Follini said. “He’s always pushing me to do my best. When he had his heart attack my sophomore year, it was really hard for us as a team. That’s why we really want to win a state title for him before he retires. If he retires this year, or whenever he retires.”
Albertson, who has since retired from teaching, has been active getting kids out for the football team.
“He’s been very devoted to working out in the weight room,” Albertson said of Follini. “He’s attended many football camps in the last year and a half to prepare for this year. He’s grown a lot physically as well (6-foot-1, 208 pounds), so he’s a big quarterback for the high school level.”
“All those guys that were athletes that weren’t playing football before, he was able to get them in here this year to play,” Follini said. “He’s been pushing everyone to go lift (weights) in the summer and do things like go to camps and continue to improve over the summer. And that’s why we’re in this position.”
Timberlake (9-0) plays at Homedale (10-0) on Saturday at noon in a state 3A semifinal.
Timberlake improved to 7-4 in 2018, advancing to the state semifinals for the first time since 2012.
“Last year, we really started to pick things up and made it to the semifinals last year,” Follini said. “This year, I think we’ve got a shot to win state this year. Our team has so much more speed than we’ve had in any of the three years I’ve been on varsity.”
Follini only played quarterback as a sophomore and junior, but is now starting at safety for Timberlake as well.
“The coaches thought I was big enough this year to play both offense and defense,” Follini said. “In the past, they’ve been worried about me getting hurt on that (defense) side of the ball, but I haven’t really worried about it.”
In Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Weiser, Follini completed 16 of 21 passes for 181 yards and also carried the ball 13 times for 80 yards, accounting for four Timberlake touchdowns.
“I don’t really model my game after anyone in particular,” Follini said. “But I love to watch Lamar Jackson, and other guys like him. I like to try to run with the ball also.”
Follini made a mistake he’ll admit in that quarterfinal game.
“I threw an interception,” Follini said. “I was scrambling around too much, got a little crazy with it, and it didn’t work out. After that interception, I was happy to go back out on defense instead of back to the sideline.”
Timberlake vs. Homedale will be a rematch of a semifinal game from 2018 at Spirit Lake, won by Homedale 35-20.
“They’ve got a lot of speed,” said Follini of Homedale. “They’ve got a good quarterback that can throw a good deep ball, so we’ll have to be ready for that. They’ve also got a good running game, and that kind of killed us last year. I think we should be able to stop that if we play a little more disciplined this year.”
Homedale advanced to the state title game, where it lost 30-22 to Sugar-Salem.
“It’s the same game as last year,” Follini said. “I really want to go down there and beat them at their field and pay them back.”
Follini has thrown for 1,468 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, and has rushed for 490 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“We have watched him grown into the athlete he is by a ton of work on and off the field,” Timberlake offensive coordinator Brian Kluss said. “It is hard to get angry at a kid that leaves it all on the field. I am not sure there has been a game that I was not amazed with the things he does. I have never coached a kid that has such an ability to escape sure tackles, then making big plays down the field. There has been times I have called plays, watched what happens, stand there in amazement and laugh. I think he plays the game like he is in a video game, and only he has the cheat codes. Our linemen have to keep their head on a swivel and keep blocking, because it is very possible he is coming back and they will have to help.”
“The kid amazes me with his sense of impending pressure,” Albertson said. “As a runner, he’s fearless and difficult to bring down. When he breaks one of his long runs, it fires up the rest of the troops. Just him being a runner creates huge matchup problems for other teams throughout the year.”
In addition to football, Follini also wrestles at Timberlake, finishing third at state at 182 pounds as a junior.
“I like wrestling too,” Follini said. “You really have to learn a lot about the sport to get something out of it. There’s a lot of technique that go into both sports. I just really enjoy playing football. The bonds with people you make is something you’ll have forever. I just love having the brotherhood you build with your teammates. There’s a lot of hard work to put into it to be good, and I enjoy it.”
“Joey plays football like he wrestles,” said Timberlake defensive coordinator Kelly Amos, the Tigers’ wrestling coach the last three years. “The tougher the game or match, the better he gets and the more he enjoys it. Because wrestling is so demanding on the athlete, I think it has helped Joey develop that toughness and has helped him learn how to be successful when the competition is most challenging.”
His bond with his teammates stretches far beyond the classroom and football field already.
“A lot of my teammates and I go over to Gage Benefield’s house before games,” said Follini, who hopes to play football in college. “We just hang out there, relaxing, watching ESPN or something else and watch TV before games a lot of times. We play a lot of Xbox. A lot of us play the new (Call of Duty) Modern Warfare that just came out, or Madden.”
As for who’s the best on the team at Madden ...
“Definitely Gage is the best on the team at that,” Follini said.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, he wants to compete at everything,” Amos said. “From the littlest game in practice to the biggest football game of the year. On defense, I ask him to cover the other team’s biggest, most physical offensive threat. Because of this, he doesn’t get a ton of flashy defensive stats. But his willingness to do this workmanlike job is a big reason our defense has been effective. He just wants this team to be successful.”