ARGENTA — Growing up, Braxton Ulrey found a way to tag along with his older brother, Brody Ulrey, anywhere from football practice to backyard games with their friends.
When Braxton was about 4 years old, he started getting into sports. He's three years younger than Brody, and Braxton was probably a bit undersized for his own grade, let alone Brody's friends. No less, Braxton didn't back down from competition.
“They’d always beat me, but I always had fun trying to beat them," Braxton said. "... It made me work harder than ever."
Braxton estimates he entered high school as a 5-foot-2, 100-pound freshman. He hit the weight room, learned the system, developed a relationship with his quarterback, Josh Williams, and has put himself into a prime spot to make a contribution for Argenta-Oreana this season, his senior year, as a receiver and defensive back. He's grown into a 5-foot-10, 165-pounder with speed and a deep knowledge of the Bombers' offense.
“His routes are crisp," Argenta coach Steve Kirk said. "He doesn’t make mistakes, generally. He’s always in the right place. He’s very intelligent. He’s going to help us out a lot this year."
The knowledge was gained by experience. Ulrey was never one of those wunderkinds who splashed on the scene as an underclassmen and took the area by storm. He's worked his way up from the scout team, then last season as a special team ace to one of the receivers the Bombers will rely heavily on after being hit hard at the skill positions by graduation.
“I’ve always put in a lot of work," Ulrey said just before a 7-on-7 camp last week. "Four years, I’ve not missed a practice. It’s an all year around thing, and you only get about a month break after the season ends."
Kirk calls Ulrey a "jack of all trades." He's jumped in to play a little quarterback, receiver, running back, defensive back, special teams, wherever he's been needed. He had plenty of value on the way to an appearance in the Class 1A state semifinals.
On most teams, Kirk said, Ulrey would have played a larger role last season. Instead, Ulrey kept his head down and put in the work behind receivers Mekhi Stanley, Gunnar Moore, Garrett Gloede and the rest of a strong senior class. Now he's in a position to assume that larger role.
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“He brings a little bit of experience, a little bit of familiarity, some athleticism," Kirk said. "To be quite honest, he’s one of, because we’ve had to replace so much, the few guys who can hit the ground running along with a Josh (Williams), a Makail (Stanley) and some of those offensive lineman who played a lot for us last year."
In reality, Ulrey hit the ground running soon after the season ended. The Bombers' players are in a group text message chain and have regularly gone out to Argenta's turf field for what essentially amounts to 7-on-7 practices. Those have helped Ulrey build on an already strong bond with Williams.
When practice begins on Aug. 12, not much will change for Ulrey other than he will likely wind up being on of Williams' top targets on the outside. He'll still approach each day the same way he did when he was running scout team, or waiting for his chance on special teams.
“I always make sure the team can get better on scout team," Ulrey said. "This year I’m still trying to make the team better and help people out. We have a lot of new people who don’t know what’s going on. I’m trying to help them."
Only now, when Friday rolls around, he'll be in a better position to make plays that wind up in the end zone, in an effort to keep the high-powered offense humming along. He's no longer undersized or fighting for a spot on the field. He'll be a fixture.
“I’m excited to get out there. I’m excited to score some touchdowns hopefully, get some picks and help the team out," Ulrey said.
Kirk hopes Ulrey is a physical reminder to younger players, who themselves might be small freshman or trying to crack a spot in the rotation. At the very least, he's a walking embodiment of hard work.
“For him to grow into the type of player he is now says something for his work ethic," Kirk said. "He’s worked really hard to get to where he is now."