One of the first things Mike Polevacik did when he was hired to replace Ben Malbasa as Elyria Catholic's head coach was look into the program's rich tradition.
What he found was the importance of the No. 44 in Panthers history. It had never been retired, but was intended to be issued only in special circumstances to players who best exemplified what being an Elyria Catholic player is all about.
Stalwarts such as Al McKinney, Bryan Thomas and Kevin Ziegman wore 44 and helped turn it into the revered number it is.
Polevacik knew he had the next person in line to wear that number: senior running back and middle linebacker Joe Dempsey.
"Me not being an EC guy, I did my due diligence to ask people within the community if people would crucify me if I brought back 44," Polevacik said. "Everyone I talked to agreed that Joe would be the guy who exemplifies what the 44 means to the EC community.
"Hopefully, he can add to that list of great tailbacks in EC history who have worn that number."
Polevacik surprised Dempsey just before two-a-days began by presenting him with the number.
"The thing is, he didn't ask for it, he didn't expect it, he was simply humbled to get it," Polevacik said. "That's the type of person that Joe Dempsey is.
"Joe Dempsey is a tank of a man and a mean, mean football player. He's everything you'd want in a football player. EC kids are tough, tough kids and Joe is the epitome of an EC kid. 'Yes, sir, whatever it takes. If I have to go tackle a guy to win the game or run the ball to win the game, I'll do what you need.' There are not enough adjectives to describe him."
Dempsey said he's still humbled by the gesture.
"I was definitely surprised," he said. "It's a great honor. It's really a great tradition within Elyria Catholic.
"I'll have huge shoes to fill, obviously. Of course I feel extra pressure, naturally. But I look forward to it. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Polevacik remembers Dempsey's sophomore year, when injuries along the offensive line forced the coaching staff to look anywhere and everywhere for bodies to fill some spots.
"I don't know if people around EC even know, but in the last two years for us, he lined up in a variety of positions," he said. "His sophomore year, we got so thin on the offensive line that he started at guard and middle linebacker for us.
"We're playing Cleveland Central Catholic that year, and he played guard, then ran the ball wearing No. 63, then went back to guard as if nothing happened. He's a true throwback player."
Polevacik nicknamed him "11," because he could play all 11 positions on the field on both sides of the ball.
"Whatever it takes to win, that's just what I aim for, and I'll do whatever coach asks me," Dempsey said.
What if Polevacik came to him and asked him to move from tailback to center for Friday's season opener?
"I'd go home and practice some snaps," Dempsey said.
You can see why Polevacik and his coaches love Dempsey so much.
"He's run plays as our Wildcat quarterback," he said. "He's been an inside backer, an outside backer and a free safety because he's just so darn smart. He's the epitome of the classic throwback football player.
"He's the kind of guy who leads by example. He runs in every drill and never walks on the football field. You never have to say, 'Keep your chinstrap on,' or 'Don't walk on the field.' He hustles 100 percent of the time. He does not have an off button. He has the motor and the drive to be great. He wants to be a great football player and I know he wants to play college ball."
Brown University has shown the most interest in him, Dempsey said. That's right, he's a 4.0 student and is on the radar for several other Ivy League schools as well.
"(Academics) are very important," he said. "I feel like, at Elyria Catholic, we try to focus on being student-athletes, not just athletes. We're also students first and foremost, and I feel like we should do our part to raise that minimum gpa. I feel like there's just a great sense of importance around here that academics hold.
"It would be a privilege to play and study at an Ivy League school."
Last season, Dempsey was a two-way starter for a Panthers squad that reached the Division IV playoffs and won its first game. He gained 720 yards on 128 carries with six touchdowns, with a long run of 48 yards. He also added 18 receptions for 198 yards and another touchdown.
Dempsey also had 62 tackles, 48 assists, four sacks, an interception, a blocked punt and three forced fumbles.
He was also a part of two regional-qualifying relays in track - the 400 and the 800 - and is contemplating a return to varsity basketball after taking last winter off.
A North Ridgeville resident, Dempsey is looking forward to playing in the West Shore Conference against some of the kids he grew up with.
"I'm just very excited for the upcoming season, and we're just trying to bring our brand of football, Elyria Catholic football, into the West Shore Conference," he said. "It's exciting for me, personally, because I grew up in North Ridgeville and know a lot of the kids that go there. In fact, I know a lot of the kids at all of these (WSC) schools. It's just exciting to go up against them, and I know it's going to be exciting for Elyria Catholic fans."
Not only did Polevacik give Dempsey the honor of wearing No. 44, but he was an easy choice to be a senior captain.
"You couldn't ask for a better kid," Polevacik said. "I can't just drive that fact home enough. He's every coach's dream. He doesn't have any chinks in the armor. He's such a good young man, a good family kid. He's not just a great athlete or great student, but a great kid. He's what high school football is all about.
"He's going to be successful in life because of football, but EC's going to get something back from him. He's going to make this team better, not just because he's gifted athletically, but because he's such a good young man. He's a very humble young man."
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Joe Dempsey is a tank of a man and a mean, mean football player. He's everything you'd want in a football player. EC kids are tough, tough kids and Joe is the epitome of an EC kid. ... There are not enough adjectives to describe him."
Elyria Catholic coach Mike Polevacik on running back/linebacker Joe Dempsey
"Whatever it takes to win, that's just what I aim for, and I'll do whatever coach asks me."
Elyria Catholic senior running back and linebacker Joe Dempsey
JOE DEMPSEY: BY THE NUMBERS
Jersey number which goes to player who best exemplifies what being an Elyria Catholic player is all about. Former EC stars Al McKinney, Bryan Thomas and Kevin Ziegman also wore it.
Nickname given to him by new head coach Mike Polevacik because he can play all 11 positions on the field - on offense and defense.
His grade-point average. His football skills and academic record have attracted the attention of several Ivy League schools.
Average yards per carry last season.
Tackles last season. Also had 48 assists, four sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a blocked punt.