By David Willis
---- — Jack Sylvester isn’t wasting time.
Two weeks ago, he broke his first carry of the game against Dracut for a 39-yard touchdown.
But hardly satisfied with that, he bested himself in a big way last Friday, taking his first touch of the night for a 70-yard score.
“Jack’s unbelievable,” said fellow quad-captain Ben Hartford. “We have some good backs, but Jack makes a big difference. He is our running game. He is the most powerful back I have ever seen. He just takes hits, pops right up and keeps going.”
The start to Sylvester’s senior football season was hardly storybook, after a preseason injury knocked him out of action for the early regular season, then a suspension due to a pair of personal fouls left him in the press box for another game.
But Sylvester has certainly hit his stride in a big way in his last two games — rushing more than 200 yards in each contest as he regains his standing as one of the state’s most dynamic running backs while leading the Golden Warriors to a two-game winning streak.
“I finally feel like myself again,” said the Andover High senior running back/defensive back. “I finally feel like I can play football the way I have always played it again, and I can finally help my teammate win ballgames again.”
Now he hopes to lead the Golden Warriors to a win this Friday, when they take on Lowell with a spot in the newly realigned playoffs on the line.
“Every day I feel like I am trying to make up for the early season,” Sylvester said. “Not being able to help the team was torture. But I feel amazing now, and there is nothing like just being able to play football again. I feel like this is the week we live up to our potential and hit our stride.”
Sylvester began playing football in the fourth grade, and was a star from his first ever carry — literally.
“On the first play of my football career, they put me in at quarterback and I ran a bootleg for a long touchdown,” he said. “After that play, they put me at running back and I have been there ever since.”
Sylvester — who runs with impressive power despite weighing in at just 165 pounds — first broke into the Golden Warriors’ starting lineup as a defensive back two years ago, making 23 tackles and picking off a pass, which he returned 74 yards for a touchdown.
But it was last season that was Sylvester’s breakout campaign.
Taking over the starting running back job from former All-Scholastic and current Brown running back Andy Coke, Sylvester scored his first 100-yard rushing performance against Methuen, then opened eyes when he tallied 202 yards and two TDs in a win over Tewksbury.
Sylvester finished the season with a team-best 1,152 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 17 passes for 252 yards and two more scores, helping Andover earn the Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 title and a trip to the playoffs.
“He stepped in and played great,” Golden Warriors coach E.J. Perry said. “He is, pound for pound, the toughest player you will see. He is able to take on linebackers and breaks more tackles than anyone. And he is terrific at reading holes, which is huge in our zone blocking scheme.”
Sylvester planned to quickly surpass those numbers when he kicked off the season this fall, but hit a major setback in late August, when he suffered a badly sprained ankle that held him out of the Week 1 win over North Andover.
“It happened during the scrimmage against Reading,” he said. “The QB threw an interception. I went to take on a block and I felt extreme pain in my ankle. I can’t even explain how awful it was to miss the opener of my senior year.”
He returned for Week 2, toughing out 95 yards on 16 carries, despite lacking his regular burst. But more trouble was on the way.
Against archrival Central Catholic in Week 4, Sylvester was called for two personal fouls. Due to a rule installed this season, according to Perry, two personal fouls are punished by an ejection from that game and suspension from the next — for Sylvester a loss to Chelmsford.
“I made two huge, stupid mistakes,” Sylvester said. “I was a little too emotional and messed up. I was ashamed and it killed me to have to watch my team struggle at home against Chelmsford.”
Perry was quick to say the incident certainly did not illustrate the character of his running back.
“He understood he made a mistake,” Perry said. “But he has been the leader of this class and the leader of this team. He represents not just the toughness of the players we want in this program, but the kind of student-athletes we want at Andover. He wants to be a leader for this team.”
Sylvester was certainly leading the Golden Warriors when he toasted Billerica for 217 yards and three scores on just 17 carries, breaking 20-plus-yard touchdowns on each of the first two drives of the night.
“That was an amazing night,” said Sylvester, who followed that up with 206 yards and three TDs last week. “I was also really relieved. I knew if I had a bad day, I was going to be really upset. I finally felt right again, like I was back to myself and could help the team. Hopefully, from here, the team will be clicking well and we can do some damage.”
His teammates are sure happy to have their star runner back rolling.
“Jack is an amazing running back,” lineman Matt Sutliff said. “Having him back just gives us a great dimension.”
Hitting the slopes
While he is a star on the gridiron, Sylvester’s future lies in another sport, freestyle skiing.
Sylvester, who took a victory at the USSA Eastern Freeski Championships in March, hopes to pursue the sport at a college in Colorado.
He has not attempted the move in nearly a year, but Andover running back Jack Sylvester cannot escape the nickname given to him for his very unique, signature trick — “Jumping Jack.”
Sylvester stunned everyone last fall during his breakout performance against Tewksbury when he leaped over a would-be tackler as if he was a hurdle in track. He repeated that move numerous times throughout the rest of the season.
“It was kind of a spur of the moment thing,” Sylvester said. “That first guy, I knew he was going low so I figured, ‘Why not jump over him?’ But it didn’t work against Lowell and I started to realize people were catching on.”
But could we see Jack jump again this season?
“It’s risky,’” he said. “But it might come out again.”