Justin Cramer becomes rare 4th-year starter at Jeannette

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019 | 4:56 PM


Middle linebacker Justin Cramer has driven a stake through the heart of many opposing offensive plays in his time with the Jeannette football team.

It’s that time, among other things, that will distinguish Cramer from others in the chronicles of the WPIAL’s most winning program.

When the season opens Aug. 23 at East Allegheny, Cramer will be one of the rare players to start all four years of his prep career.

An impact tackler since he made a splash as a freshman, Cramer returns for his final season in Jayhawks red and blue.

Jeannette used to have a freshman team, so many of the best players only started on the varsity for three years.

Not all of them were natural leaders. But Cramer fits that mold.

“We have had good leaders since I have been here, and some bad leaders, too,” Cramer said. “I have seen what the good ones did, and I want to follow them. I want to lead how they led.”

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A senior who has 332 tackles and 22 sacks in his career, the 6-foot, 220-pound Cramer once again will give shine to the Jayhawks on both sides of the ball — he also is a blocking lineman on offense.

He has been stellar on defense. He had 100-plus tackles and 12 sacks last season as Jeannette finished 11-1 and reached the WPIAL Class A semifinals. The previous year, Cramer battled through knee injuries to help lead the Jayhawks to WPIAL and PIAA championships.

A two-sport standout, he also wrestles for Hempfield as part of co-op with Jeannette.

Cramer, who has a scholarship offer to wrestle at Seton Hill but is awaiting his first offer in football, plans to cut weight to 197 come the winter season. But first, football, and taking down opponents in an effort to add to Jeannette’s record total of 747 wins.

He would take great pleasure in adding a 10th WPIAL title to Jeannette’s storied mantle.

“I can tell you he’s the only four-year starter on defense that I know of here,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “Wrestlers make better football players. If people ask me who are some of the best (linebackers) we’ve had that have played three or four years, he is in the conversation.”

As far as the aforementioned leaders he would like to emulate, Cramer mentioned former quarterbacks Robert Kennedy and Gio Vonne Sanders, and ex-Jayhawks linemen Jalen Jones and Eric Hall.

“They were dedicated team players,” Cramer said. “They all helped us bond like a family.”

Aggression and control often meet in the middle for the best run-stuffing linebackers. Cramer is cognizant of that concept.

“Wrestlers are a different breed,” Cramer said. “It helps me. As far as being aggressive, that’s how I play. I just go. Like my trainer Tyler Zimmer (of Alphalete Performance and Fitness) says, be a suicide bomber out there on the field.”

With equal success in football and wrestling, the brawny Cramer said he would like to try both sports in college. He also carries a 3.6 grade-point average, and Jeannette’s staff appreciates his coachability and work ethic.

“He is just a hard-nosed kid who brings that toughness,” coach Hall said.

Good bloodlines also make Cramer the player he is. He is the nephew of former Jeannette wrestler and football standout Matt Lebe, now the wrestling coach at Franklin Regional. Lebe is a Jeannette Hall of Fame inductee.

Lebe wrestled at West Virginia but was an assertive two-way player in football as a running back and linebacker.

“I heard he was a beast,” Cramer said of Lebe. “I look up to him. I heard on Christmas mornings he would be running around Jeannette wearing a garbage bag. He wouldn’t eat Christmas dinner. That’s how hard we worked.”

Cramer said he had a second shaved off his 40-yard dash time after surgeries to both knees. He tore the meniscus in both knees about a month apart and missed six games. He had surgery during the season and came back after missing four weeks to play against Rochester in the 2017 quarterfinals.

He said he is back to 100 percent. Case in point: last season when he returned to his wrap-them-up form.

“I just want to prove that I can play at the next level. And take us all the way,” he said. “I heard a college coach say, ‘Our seniors will take us as far as we want to go.’ That can be what happens here. I believe that. We can be better than last year.”

Cramer said he and two other key playmaking seniors, Zach Crutchman and Jackson Pruitt, often hang out after practices and “For about an hour, we talk about football,” he said. “We talk about how the season is going to go.”

Reaching 400 tackles also is one of Cramer’s goals.

“I am thankful that we’ve had some seasons go so long,” he said. “But to have over 300 tackles, that’s crazy. I am proud to tell people I have that many. Like (Zimmer) told me, (paraphrasing Walter Payton): ‘When you’re good, you tell them. But when you’re great, they’ll tell you.’ ”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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