FINDLAY - Aaron Craft first played organized basketball in the second grade. Shortly thereafter, he started playing football too, in the sixth grade, and thus began a love affair with both sports.
Like most children, Craft's first sport has always been his favorite, and at some point there comes a time to choose when college recruiters from both sports come calling, as they have for Craft.
The Liberty-Benton junior verbally committed in September to attend the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship after his high school playing days are done.
"Just in my heart, basketball has always been there," Craft said. "Football is definitely fun, and nothing beats playing out there on a Friday night under the lights, being with your second family. But basketball just comes easier to me. I've been around it longer and I'm more familiar with it."
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The decision came as a surprise to many in this community, who have come to expect greatness from Craft on the football field.
During his freshman year, Craft quarterbacked the Eagles to the Division V state semifinal, losing 28-21 to St. Henry. Last year they fell short of a return trip to the final four, losing to Patrick Henry 44-27 in the regional final.
Tomorrow night Craft and Liberty-Benton (12-0) will have a shot at redemption against the Patriots (12-0) when they again meet in the regional final at 7 at Bowling Green State University's Perry Stadium.
"We've been really blessed the past three years getting to the regional finals," Craft said. "We have to be proud of what we've done but we can't be satisfied. We have to stay hungry and come out ready to play."
Craft has compiled some astounding statistics in his career on the gridiron, and this season is no different. He leads Liberty-Benton in scoring (21 TDs), rushing (961 yards on 102 carries) and passing (171-of-208, 2,578 yards, 29 TDs) en route to being named the Blanchard Valley Conference player of the year for the second year in a row.
Last season, Craft completed 177 of 258 passes for 2,277 yards and 25 TDs to go with 1,366 rushing yards on 170 carries with 16 TDs and was named All-Ohio first team in Division V.
The year before, Craft took over duties as the Eagles' signal caller from his brother, Brandon, who moved to wide receiver upon Aaron's arrival. The move paid off, as Craft threw for more than 2,000 yards in his rookie campaign.
More than anything else, Craft is a winner. The L-B football and basketball teams have gone a combined 83-5 since Craft walked through the doors as a freshman.
"I've become a little spoiled," L-B football coach Tim Nichols said. "We get accustomed to seeing him every night and on Fridays. He's a special kid."
Nichols sees Craft's success as a result of who he is as a person.
"He's just competitive in whatever he's doing," Nichols said. "It can be in practice, in the weight room, in any game, you see his competitive side. It just seems the bigger the game, it brings out a little bit more of that competitiveness in him. When you a get a kid like that, I think that's what really separates him."
While separate in make-up and athletic ability, Craft does not separate himself in his actions. Despite starring on the varsity football team as a freshman, Craft still rode the freshman bus with his classmates and helped them pick up trash after home games, as is the custom at Liberty-Benton.
Craft is also not one to scream at his teammates when things are going wrong, preferring to lead by example with a quiet confidence.
"I'm never seen him look at himself in any different way," Nichols said. "To him, he's just another member of the team. It's tough for a 17 or 18-year-old kid not to probably get a little bit of a bigger picture of themselves. But he understands in football and in basketball especially, you're only as good as what your teammates do with you. He's really mature when it comes to that side of it."
Craft maintains the source of his humble leadership stems from his parents, John and Wendy.
"They're really good people and they talk to me about these things," Craft said. "There's no point in getting a big head, because the more big-headed you get, the easier you're going to fall. You have to stick close with the people around you or you're not going to have anybody left."
The football family of Liberty-Benton is one Craft is very close with but one he will ultimately leave once again as fall turns to winter and the sound of pads crunching is replaced by feet pounding the hardwood.
While preseason drills are just getting into full swing at Liberty-Benton, basketball coach Steve Williman may have to be patient a few more weeks for Craft to join the Eagles.
Craft led the Eagles at point guard last season, scoring 18.5 points per game to earn Division III all-district first team and Blanchard Valley Conference player of the year honors. As a freshman, he was a starter for a state runner-up team.
"It's kind of like having a coach on the floor for us with Aaron," Williman said. "His overall demeanor, he's a very good student, he gets along well with the entire student body, he's just the type of individual that doesn't come around very often. We don't get many student-athletes as gifted as what Aaron is."
Van Buren basketball coach E.J. Frost has seen many great battles waged between his squad and Craft the last two seasons in the BVC.
Craft has beaten many of Frost's strategies meant to slow him down, according to the coach, including traps, double-teams and even triple-teams.
"For starters, I think Aaron Craft has the intangible of intelligence," Frost said, "and that translates to the basketball floor. He just seems to have incredible vision and he will make the players around him better."
Frost and Williman agree Craft's court awareness and elusive ball-handling skills will serve him well at the next level.
For Craft, making that decision to commit solely to basketball was one of the hardest he's ever had to make. The choice to leave football behind was difficult but one he hasn't regretted.
"We'll talk about it every now and then in school and things, but I'm really happy with my decision and I'm going to stick with it," Craft said.
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