Julian Mingo was in the right place at the right time.
In the biggest game of his life, the then-junior linebacker at South Forsyth made the play of his life when he jumped in front of a screen pass backed up against the 5-yard line with the War Eagles down 28-24 against the No. 2 ranked team in the entire country in Colquitt County. Sam Outlaw gave the War Eagles a go-ahead touchdown moments later.
South didn’t walk away with a win on that night, but it did walk away with a team full of football players who felt like they accomplished the impossible. For Mingo, his dramatic interception was validation that previous hardships directed him in the right direction.
A year earlier, Mingo didn’t know much about reading and snuffing out screen passes. Instead, he was working against Outlaw—who had a breakout season in 2015 as well—in the running back rotation. Against Lambert in the final game of the regular season, with South trailing by a large margin, Mingo entered the game in the final minutes to relieve starting tailback Tyler LaFlamme.
Moments later he was on the ground, collapsed to the turf with a non-contact injury.
“I first tried to play it off. I tried to stand up, but I eventually had to get helped off the field,” Mingo said. “When I first went to the hospital they told me I sprained my LCL.”
The next day he dropped his crutches and tried to get back into running, but noticed his knee kept giving out, so he went for a second opinion and an MRI. The results: a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a partially torn lateral collateral ligament. The doctor could feel his shin displaced from the rest of the knee.
“There were some tears shed,” Mingo said.
Within a few days he went into his first surgery ever. The pain: unbearable. The knee: completely immobile. He had to lie on a couch for days while a machine slowly motioned his knee. Comfort foods like mac n’ cheese were a go-to. Video games passed time and took his mind off the pain.
The injury was devastating, but the good news is that it may have happened at the perfect time—just at the end of the season. Within a few weeks he learned how to walk again; within two months he was jogging on the sidelines at team practices. Mingo was back on track with the team by the end of spring practice and was at full-strength for fall—but there was one major change.
“Had the injury not happened I probably would have ended up playing tailback,” Mingo said. “I was just so happy to get back on the field, I’d play anywhere.”
Since starting football in the fifth grade Mingo had played exclusively at fullback and the defensive line, but when he returned to practice from the injury he was too far back in the depth chart to continue at tailback. So Mingo stepped into a linebacker slot, where the team needed an extra body. There, he was asked to be more communicative and lead the defense.
On the interception against Colquitt County, Mingo called the play.
“Before the snap I called to everyone that they were running a screen,” Mingo said. “Ennor Armah went in and blitzed on it, so the quarterback just kind of floated the ball and I shed a guy and picked it off. I remember that play vividly. My helmet came off, but I was so excited I don’t remember until getting back on the sideline.”
Mingo’s inadvertent switch to linebacker is paying off. This season as a senior he has amassed 35 tackles—second on the team—with 20 solo stops, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He’s spent the first half of the year as the team captain, and his 3.5 GPA in the classroom combined with his football smarts has earned him some recognition from colleges.
He says he’s already spoken to four Ivy League schools about the possibility of playing at the next level—Dartmouth has taken the most interest.
“A lot of coaches started coming around when Tyler McLellan was here, also going after (Davis) Shanley, and coaches just took notice of some of us,” Mingo said. “It’s pretty huge. It’s pretty cool.”