With Johnson at Jacksonville State University, Garner became the Bulldogs NO. 1 option a wide reciever and top option on the hardwood, too.
Garner became a first-team all-state choice at wide receiver this past fall, and on the court, he averaged 19.7 points and 10. 2 rebounds, earning second-team all-state honors while leading Piedmont to the Northeast Regional semifinals.
For his efforts, local coaches named him The Star’s 2012 Calhoun County Class 3A Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“I knew I had to pick up more of the scoring role,” the 6-foot-6, 185-pounder said. “I had to be more of a leader and not just a role player.”
Garner, a North-South game selection as a junior, helped the Bulldogs go 20-12, winning a fifth straight area championship. They came just a bucket shy of returning to the regional final, but Garner’s runner in the lane missed at the buzzer in a 57-56 loss to Madison Academy at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
When Garner arrived at Piedmont a couple years ago, he had no intentions of becoming a two-sport star for the Bulldogs.
That was until he coach Steve Smith approached him the first time he walked into the fieldhouse.
“He said, ‘Big-tall, you gonna play football,’ Garner said, recalling the conversation. “I said, ‘No’ and everybody started booing.”
That’s when Smith asked Garner to step into his office. He told him he only wanted him to play football for one year. But he had to be committed to playing, meaning he couldn’t quit.
“He shook his hand and told him, ‘Yes, sir’. I’d play for that one year,” Garner said. “I fell in love with it.”
Playing behind Johnson and Noah Willis, another all-state choice, as a junior, Garner learned the ropes. He was used judiciously during the regular season, often as a target on jump balls in the end zone, but came on as a starter in the playoffs.
“It was the competitive side of me,” Garner said when asked what drove him to return for his senior season. “I wanted follow up. I wanted to be our go-to guy at receiver.”
And he was, catching 36 passes for 597 yards and 10 touchdowns.
His performance on the football field even opened up some new options following the season when West Alabama and Shorter College (Ga.) inquired of his services.
But it wasn’t enough to pry his affections away from his first love.
“I considered it a little bit,” Garner said of playing college football. “But basketball’s always been my first sport, and I wanted to pursue that.”
UAH expressed interest in his services and Jacksonville State invited him to several games, but it’s the scholarship offer he holds from Gadsden State Community College that’s the most promising, he said.
Garner blocked 107 shots during his senior season but views himself as a small forward at the next level. He said he’ll have to step it up another notch to excel in college.
“There’s a lot I need to work on,” he said. “Every time I’m not in the gym practicing or in the weight room, there’s somebody out there who is.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. Reach him at 256-235-3575. On Twitter: birds_word.