AC football

Atlantic City football players Isiah Graves, 18, left and Dennis White, 18, right, they both play football and basketball from Atlantic City High School Wednesday, Oct 9, 2013.

Dennis White says the thrill of scoring a touchdown tops the excitement of a slam dunk.

Isiah Graves declares he would rather score three points on the basketball court than six on the football field.

The two Atlantic City High School seniors are among the few Cape-Atlantic League athletes who can compare sinking baskets to crossing the goal line.

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The duo helped propel the Vikings boys basketball team to back-to-back state Group IV championships in 2012 and 2013.

But this fall Graves and White are playing wide receiver for an Atlantic City football team that is off to a surprising 2-1 start. The Vikings play at Hammonton (3-1) at 7 p.m. today. Tonight's winner will get a boost toward the playoffs.

"They (Graves and White) bring a winning attitude," Atlantic City coach Thomas Kelly said. "They've been in big games. They've made clutch shots. They always believe."

The Atlantic City football team finished 8-3 and reached the South Jersey Group V semifinals last season.

This season was suppose to be a rebuilding year with several inexperienced players in the lineup. But Graves and White are prominent reasons why the Vikings have gotten off to solid start.

The 6-foot-2, 179-pound Graves is a shooting guard in basketball with a knack for making baskets at critical spots.

He sank two long-range 3-pointers in overtime as Atlantic City beat Linden 60-54 in the state Group IV title game last March.

Graves began his football career in the eighth grade. His friends convinced him that he was too big and too fast not to play football. He played his previous three years at Atlantic City but was overshadowed last season by a talented core of Atlantic City receivers, all of who graduated.

"I was a role player last year like the sixth man in basketball," Graves said.

But this year, Graves leads the team in receiving with 11 catches for 252 yards and four touchdowns.

"He goes after the football," Kelly said. "You can put a lot of tall guys on the football field and they won't always go after the ball like he does."

Graves relishes the preparation leading to a Friday night football game.

"There's a lot of preparation and hype for football," Graves said. "Basketball you go out there and do it day-by-day. In football, there's a lot of buildup. You get so determined to go out there and score and make big plays."

The 6-foot-5 White was at times Atlantic City's best basketball player last season. He played football his freshman year but took the last two years off.

"I wanted to get tougher," White said when asked why he returned to the football field this fall.

White made the decision to play football after talking with Kelly. The coach said every time he saw White in school hallways last year he would picture the player in a football uniform.

"I watched him play basketball, and he's such a tough kid," Kelly said. "I know the type of athletes basketball players can be, and I was salivating every time I saw him in the hallway."

Like Graves, White's size and speed makes him tough to defend. In a preseason scrimmage against Southern Regional, he simply jumped over a smaller defender to catch a fade pass for a touchdown. He's caught six passes for 65 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown in a 41-12 win over Egg Harbor Township.

"I like (football)," White said. "It's kind of cool."

But it's not just physical skills the duo brings to the football field.

Few teams in the state in any sport showed the mental toughness that the Atlantic City boys basketball team exhibited the past two seasons.

The Vikings won on the road before packed gyms at Lenape, Eastern and Cherry Hill East on their way to the 2012 state title.

In 2013, the Vikings rallied from a 14-point, first-half deficit to beat East Brunswick 51-49 in the state Group IV semifinal. Atlantic City rallied from a 19-point, second-half deficit to beat Pt. Pleasant Beach 80-73 in double overtime in a Tournament of Champions quarterfinal.

The belief in themselves that White and Graves gained from those basketball victories translates to the football field.

"They carry themselves in a confident way because of the winning (on the basketball court)," Kelly said.

At many schools, basketball players with talent like White and Graves would never play football. The basketball coach simply wouldn't allow it for fear of the players getting injured and wrecking the basketball season.

But that's not the case with Atlantic City, in part because of the relationship between Kelly and boys basketball coach Gene Allen. The two coaches work together so that athletes involved in both sports can train for football in July and August and still play in essential summer basketball tournaments and events.

"I think kids should have as many options as possible," Allen said.

That's not to say that Allen doesn't have some anxious moments each time White or Graves get tackled.

"But I think it's good for them," Allen said. "I think the develop a certain mentality by playing a physical sport that they can bring to basketball."

Graves and White also say that football will make them better basketball players. They say they will be in better shape when the basketball season begins in December.

But the duo also has motivation for playing football that is sometimes lost in an era where many high school athletes specialize in just one sport.

"I enjoy playing the game," Graves said.

Contact Michael McGarry:


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