By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier
Chris Van Kleeck had never played football until his seventh-grade year. And until this season at West Forsyth, he had only played defense on the varsity team.
That changed once this season started in late August when Van Kleeck, who is a senior for the Titans, was named the starting quarterback by Coach Adrian Snow and offensive coordinator Sean Joyce.
“I sat down with all the coaches and they laid it on the table for me and they explained how they’d work it out for getting me my defensive playing time, as well,” Van Kleeck said. “You know, obviously, just because I’d never done it before. But it was a good conversation. It went really well.”
Van Kleeck, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, had only played safety and linebacker since he joined the varsity team for the Titans in his sophomore season. He has played quarterback in all three games for the Titans (2-1), helping them defeat Asheville Reynolds and Oak Grove the first two games, as well as the loss at Weddington two weeks ago.
“He was doing good and doing what we asked him to do,” Snow said. “And it was something we felt was right to do.”
Snow and Joyce were right in their assessment. Van Kleeck threw two touchdown passes against Asheville Reynolds, he threw three touchdown passes in the Oak Grove game, and he was 6-of-13 passing for 69 yards in the Weddington game, and also rushed for 36 yards.
“He does a really good job of not getting sacked, which helps out,” Snow said. “He’s always looking for the next move, whatever it might be. But he does a good job at it.”
It all started with a quarterback competition between Van Kleeck and Kian Bailey, who played quarterback during the spring. However, Bailey was moved to receiver.
“Originally, Kian was going to play quarterback too, and we were going to fight for the job,” Van Kleeck said. “When I told Kian I was going to play quarterback he (thought) it would be best if he stuck with receiver rather than quarterback because I think he realized he would have better odds of playing receiver than playing quarterback.”
Up until now this season, Van Kleeck has only played quarterback. After an off week last week, Central Piedmont 4-A play starts at home on Friday against Mount Tabor, which transitioned from winning the NCHSAA Class 3-AA state championship in the spring to being back in the conference after being away for four years. With the importance of conference play, he will play some on both offense and defense.
“He ain’t going to play both ways all the time,” Snow said. “He might some, in different situations. But for the most part he’s our quarterback and then we will spot-play him some on defense.”
It was all about giving the Titans the best chance at winning.
“At the end of the day, we were just trying to put the pieces together to make our team as good as we could,” Snow said.
Instead of overthinking playing a new position, Van Kleeck went back and thought about what he did in another sport.
“I’ve played baseball my whole life,” he said. “So, throwing wasn’t the hard part to figure out for me. The hard part for me was figuring out how big the playbook was.”
Playing defense for the past two seasons has also helped how Van Kleeck sees the field.
“Reading defenses was a lot easier just because I am a defensive player, and I know what defenses are trying to do — how they disguise coverages and stunts, and things like that,” he said. “And I think that definitely helped me a lot.”
The Titans have offensive weapons who can take come of the pressure off Van Kleeck. They have running back Jevante Long, as well as receivers Bralen Morris and Isaiah Kimbrough. But of his five touchdown passes, four have them have been thrown to Morris.
“I’d don’t know if I’d go safety blanket, but if we need a play (Morris is) definitely a guy we look at,” Van Kleeck said.
Everybody at West Forsyth knows that defenses are trying to stop Long, who is a senior, and a dynamic running back.
“People are going to try to get up in there and stop the run,” Snow said. “Now, it gives (Van Kleeck) an opportunity to throw the ball well, which he’s done. And I think he’ll only get better as the year goes on.”
But for Van Kleeck, he’s completely rethought how he looks at himself as an athlete, even just five years ago.
“My first sport was actually baseball,” Van Kleeck said. “I was playing baseball since I was like 4. And then my second sport was soccer. And my third sport was basketball. And I wasn’t allowed to play football until middle school because my stepdad and my mom were worried about the head injuries and stuff.
“They thought I’d get hurt, so they held me back out for a little while. But now it’s funny because it’s my only sport, is football, and I’ve dropped the other three.”
And although he hadn’t played quarterback until last month, he has stepped in for the Titans and has acquitted himself quite well for someone who has only played the position for three games.
“I dropped basketball going into high school. I dropped soccer a while ago. I dropped baseball most recently, about like a year ago,” Van Kleeck said. “And that was kind of me deciding that football was what I wanted to give all my attention to and focus mainly on.”
Whether to concentrate on one sport or to play multiple sports has become a hot-button topic for youths across the country.
“I think there’s good things and bad things for both of them,” Van Kleeck said. “I think it kind of depends on the person you are. I don’t think a coach should ever be able to tell a player like, you know, you can’t play another sport. I think that’s dumb, especially at such a young age. I think you should try and play as much as you can.
“It’s going to help you athletically obviously down the road, but just more importantly, kind of find what you like to do, I guess.”
Van Kleeck only sees one drawback to playing multiple sports.
“The only bad things is, you’re really trying to play at the collegiate level for one of them,” he said. “Other sports can take time away. If you can time it and schedule it well together so that it doesn’t overlap, then I don’t see a problem with it. But my problem was I couldn’t because baseball and football took up so much time. Baseball during the summer, I was out of town for weeks at a time. With football, I have practice every day and they overlap too much.”
After begging his parents for year, Van Kleeck finally got his wish in middle school.
“It wasn’t one of those things where I decided to play football my eighth-grade year,” he said. “It was one of those things where I’d been asking to play football since like third grade. I had played football before, like I’d throw and catch and played around with my friends.”
When he finally stepped on a football field, he had to learn the nuances of the game.
“It was difficult at first learning how to protect yourself when you hit and get hit, and stuff like that,” Van Kleeck said. “But the way I look at it now is, it doesn’t really affect like, it doesn’t mean anything to me now. The years that other people have on me now just because I feel like I have other years, other experience that have helped me just as good or not better than peoples’ years of experience in other sports like football.”
When he arrived at West Forsyth his freshman year, Van Kleeck tried out for the JV football team and made it.
“My freshman year, I came in and was dead-set on wanting to be a running back,” he said. “I swore I was the next Christian McCaffrey (running back for the Carolina Panthers) and nobody could tell me anything else.”
However, the coaching staff at West Forsyth saw something else in Van Kleeck’s play.
“It was funny because when I first got there our defensive coaches came up, they sat down with me, and they were like, ‘We want you to play defense. We think you could be really good for us.’ ” he said. “And I was like, ‘I would never play defense. No. I’m an offensive guy. That’s me. I’m a running back. I’m not a linebacker. I’m not a safety. Nothing like that. Keep me at running back.’ “
Despite being adamant about not wanting to play defense, something switched for Van Kleeck the next season when he made the varsity team.
“We didn’t have a free safety,” he said. “I could’ve either played running back another year on JV or I could’ve started on varsity at free safety, and I did that. That was the first time I’d ever played that position.”
Going through any change is difficult. This transition for Van Kleeck was no different.
“There were a lot of learning curves that took place,” he said. “Some of them took place in the middle of games, which aren’t necessarily the most ideal situations you want to be in. But I think that year molded me into the football player most out of any of my other years just because you’re one of the youngest every time you step on the field..
“It’s so much faster than JV. You have to prepare yourself week-in and week-out differently than for JV.”
Van Kleeck said he hasn’t grown much since he started playing football for the Titans.
“I haven’t grown height much since my sophomore year,” he said. “My sophomore year is when I hit my growth spurt. I went from like 5-10 to like 6-foot-ish. Somewhere around there. But going in from freshman to sophomore I’ve probably put on like 10 pounds. I was like 170 my freshman year, 180 my sophomore year. And going into my junior year was when I bulked up to play linebacker, and I put on 15 to 20 pounds.”
Then COVID-19 hit last year, and when fall practice in 2020 was usually in full gear, there was no football to be seen between high school teams in North Carolina. However, teams were allowed to have modified workouts with safety protocols.
“Our first practice back was definitely bittersweet because everybody kind of had the feeling we weren’t going to get to play,” Van Kleeck said. “It was kind of like, you heard the whispers. But we were back together for the first time in what felt like forever. I think last year I think everybody cherished, legitimately cherished every single second, every single practice. It was different than any other year I’ve really ever had to play football.”
Some of the COVID restrictions were eased, and the NCHSAA decided to have a shortened season in the spring with seven regular-season games. That meant that, at the time, West Forsyth would play two nonconference games and five conference games in the Central Piedmont 4-A.
Everything was looking great in the spring for West Forsyth won its first two games against Greensboro Page and Oak Grove.
“It really did suck,” Van Kleeck said. “I mean that in the worst way possible because that was right after I’d just quit baseball. Like football, I decided that was what I was going to focus on. You know, junior year is when everybody is talking about, is the recruiting year and it’s your most important year. Play good your junior year and you can go play in college. That’s what everybody’s telling me. And I’m like, ‘I might not even get a junior year right now the way things are looking.’ “
The following week, West Forsyth was scheduled to play rival East Forsyth. However, late in the week some of the players tested positive for COVID, and with a two-week quarantine in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, West Forsyth was unable to play the East Forsyth game or the Glenn game, which was schedule the week after the East Forsyth game.
“You know, there was just so much uncertainty and literally nothing anybody could do about it. Like it wasn’t like we could put a mask on and socially-distance, and everything would be fine,” Van Kleeck said. “When the outbreak first happened, I thought we were doing a really good job.”
During the spring, West Forsyth was 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the conference when it played at Davie County in the final game of the regular season. Davie won 36-35 in overtime, and because the NCHSAA playoffs were determined by conference winning percentage, West Forsyth missed the playoffs.
“It definitely sucked because we definitely felt like it was taken away from us,” Van Kleeck said. “And obviously when the games were canceled, as I guess you can assume, what’s said by the East players and coaches, or the Glenn fans and coaches, oh, ”Y’all are scared.’ Stuff like that.”
Van Kleeck felt like everything was aligned that the Titans could’ve defeated East Forsyth and Glenn.
“We had a really good team last year, too,” he said. “People forget it because nobody could really come. In my opinion we had one of the top defenses in the state last year. And still we had one of the best offensive-line units in the state. And then (running backs) Nasion (Johnson) and Tay (Long) were running that ball at will every game. We had a really nice squad going. I really wish we could’ve strung together a couple more games…”
It made it all the more difficult that Davie won on the last play of the game in overtime.
“They were our only conference loss my sophomore year too. And that was on homecoming.” Van Kleeck said. “Davie has given some bitter tastes in Titan mouths over the last three years, and I’m not proud of it.”
The cruel irony of COVID in the spring came back with vengeance this past August. Snow contracted it and was in the hospital for 11 days. He came back to coach in the Weddington game after missing the first two games. It turned out that Van Kleeck also had COVID and missed 10 days while in quarantine, much of which is while Snow was in the hospital.
“It wasn’t good,” Van Kleeck said. “And Snow having it and hearing what he was going through wasn’t making me feel any better. But I didn’t have it nearly as bad as Snow.”
Van Kleeck said his whole body ached, had a headache, fever, nausea, his throat hurt, and lost his appetite. He said he lost 15-20 pounds while quarantining in his bedroom away from his family. Van Kleeck didn’t come back to West Forsyth until the day of the Asheville Reynolds game. Yet he still threw two touchdown passes in his debut as a high school quarterback.
“He’s a great kid,” Snow said. “It was good. His (COVID) was definitely, he didn’t feel good early. After that, his kind of eased off, which was good.”
All the while with both being sick they communicated with each other.
“It was definitely one of those things where I was more worried for (Snow) than I was for me,” Van Kleeck said. “We were texting and calling each other almost every day. I got back before him. Obviously, it sucked without Snow. I love all the coaches to death but not having Snow there was just not the same, just not playing football.”
After going through COVID before he was vaccinated, Van Kleeck said he is now vaccinated.
“After that and after the situation with Snow I just didn’t want to end up like Snow,” Van Kleeck said. “And I didn’t want to end up like myself either, so I just went ahead and got it.”
It’s all about learning lessons, whether it be on the field or off the field.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it (COVID) because I thought I was invincible,” Van Kleeck said.