As an offensive and defensive lineman for the St. Stephens football team, senior Corey Cramer knows what its like to battle on the football field every Friday night.
Conflicts off of the field, though, have made Cramer more mentally tougher than anyone could ever expect out of a 17-year-old.
In 2009, Cramer started his freshman year at St. Stephens and became a member of the Indians’ junior varsity program.
Just making that team was a success for Cramer, who periodically had issues as a child after being born with a club foot.
When he was seven months old, he had surgery to repair his ailment in his right appendage.
The surgery helped the issue with his foot go away for six years, when it continued to pop up every couple of months.
Cramer spent nearly every winter from age 6 until fifth grade trying to combat the problem, while continuing to play sports.
After an experimental surgery following his fifth-grade year, Cramer could do something for the first time in his life — run.
“Corey played sports during all of this, but was benched most of the time because he couldn’t run,” said Kyle Stewart-Cramer, Corey’s mother. “He still cannot ride a bike or skate, but it hasn’t stopped him from trying. Had he been born 30 years before he was, he would have never walked, much less become an athlete.”
Cramer’s biggest breakthrough came in his freshman year with the Indians, when he started one game at nose guard on the Indians’ junior varsity squad.
After that fall semester in 2009, Cramer’s family moved to Georgia so they could take his grandmother back to her home state.
Corey enrolled at Peachtree Ridge High School, a Region 7-AAAAA institution in Suwanee, Ga.
He said life at the school was a struggle from the onset.
“It was just hard for me to integrate in a school system like that because it was so big,” he said. “The only person I knew was my cousin and his friends.”
The confusing period of his life brought back a reoccurring academic issue.
“My grades haven’t been the best ever since elementary school,” he said. “I’ve never been one of those kids that really focused in school, unless it is one of those things I really, really love.”
After his GPA dropped to a 2.0, Cramer was declared ineligible during his sophomore year. He wasn’t allowed to play football or participate in another sport he loves — wrestling.
“I just could not focus,” he said. “I told my coaches I was going to focus on grades the whole time because if I was focused on a sport, I wasn’t going to key in on my grades at all.”
Leaving the football field and wrestling mat behind, Cramer studied every night, listened to what his teachers were saying and if he needed additional help, he went to the Peachtree Ridge Library.
His GPA slowly rose, making him eligible again.
Cramer said spending time away from sports and working harder in the class room taught him a lot.
“It showed me that I could come back from bad grades,” he said. “From there on, I went straight focusing on both my grades and wrestling.”
Getting back on track by the time he was a junior, life dealt Cramer another hardship that was much more difficult than his first.
In a span of 10 months in 2011, he lost six people either close to or in his immediate family, including an aunt and uncle, both of his grandmothers, a great aunt and his dad’s best friend.
Cramer said the first loss — his uncle on Sept. 9, 2011 — was the one that nearly brought him down for good.
“My family spent all our money on a house and the funerals,” he said. “Some deaths were by natural causes and others were freak accidents. When that first death happened, I just shut back down with school and everything.”
Reaching down deep and finding the same inner strength that had brought him through his academic issues, Cramer pressed on through his family’s tragedies.
“It was probably a few months after my uncle’s death that I reconnected everything and turned the switch back on,” he said. “Nobody really knew what was happening except for my family and a few people I told at school. All they told me to do was push, keep fighting, keep pushing for those grades and be eligible every year. It was not easy, but I got through it all.”
Because of those misfortunes, Cramer and his family were forced to move back to Hickory in December 2011 and rent the house they put up for sale two years prior.
Despite the circumstances of moving back to Catawba County, Cramer said enrolling back at St. Stephens was exactly what he needed in his life.
“For the three years I was down in Georgia, I went from the high morals I had (at St. Stephens) to having only half of them,” he said. “I was just sad most of the time. The second I got back up here, I was happy again. This is the happiest my parents have ever seen me.”
Cramer joined the St. Stephens varsity football program this year — inspired by memories of the past every time he puts on his pads and hits the field for the Indians.
“When I’m playing, I think about a few things,” he said. “I think about my family up in heaven watching over me and also my family here. From what I see on the football field in an actual game, it motivates me to go harder.”
Cramer has started every game at right defensive end this season for the Indians.
He also stepped in to fill the left tackle role against Newton-Conover last week when teammate Blake Gutberlet went down with a shoulder injury.
Indians head football coach Chris Bunting said playing offense and defense didn’t bother Corey.
“We never skipped a beat in practice,” he said. “We never had to worry about teaching Corey because he already knew it. It was just a matter of him having to suck it up on Friday night. In the end, it went pretty well.”
Bunting said Cramer, whose GPA is around 3.0, is an inspiration to not only his football program and school, but the Hickory community, as well.
“It’s really easy for a kid like that to go through those kinds of things and let their whole world come crumbling down,” he said. “It’s easy for those kids to fall through the cracks in the education system. They just end up failing class after class and getting into a vicious cycle. It ends up leading to discipline problems. They spend time in ISS (in-school suspension). They just get caught up in the wash.
“I can only speak for what I’ve seen from Corey since January when he moved back here, but what I’ve seen is a kid that is focused and determined,” he continued. “For a kid to go through that much stuff and be where he is right now is a testament to his character and his strength. It makes our program better because we’ve got a guy who has battled through things. We need guys who battle. We talk about mental toughness a lot in our program. That’s a kid who has got it. We need more guys that have what he has in him.”