Mergenthal signs to play with Hampden-Sydney football

Updated: April 27, 2020

Loyalty requires a certain amount of stubbornness.

As a freshman, Braxton Mergenthal was a starter on Cedar Ridge’s football team.

By the end of his sophomore year, he didn’t have a varsity football team.

In the summer of 2018, the Orange County School System announced that Cedar Ridge wouldn’t field a varsity squad the following August because of “safety concerns.” In a sport where quantity determines your quality, the Red Wolves simply didn’t have enough players.

Mergenthal would have had every right to transfer to neighboring Orange High. Five of his teammates did, and there were other defections by All-Conference-caliber athletes from other sports in a summer of torment at Cedar Ridge.

Six weeks later, his coach, Scott Loosemore departed for Scotland County in order to secure an elusive full-time teaching position.

In order for Mergenthal to return to Cedar Ridge, it meant he had to go back to a program that had hit the reset button on football. After two years at the highest level, he would spend his junior year playing junior varsity, the only team that Cedar Ridge could possibly deploy. He would be surrounded by freshmen and sophomores learning on the job, just as he did in prior years.

Still, Mergenthal stayed. So did Braedon Thompson, K.J. Barnes, Jaikel Gibbs, Matthew Hinton, Brandon Poteat and Zach Holmes.

In the future, whenever Cedar Ridge football rises from the ashes, those players should be remembered as the ones who laid the foundation for success.

“As long as you have seniors who stay all four years, you’re going to have something to build on,” Mergenthal said. “I think we’ll continue to have that.”

There was also an academic factor. As a member of Cedar Ridge’s International Baccalaureate program, Mergenthal had already spent two years taking college-level courses. A move to Orange would have basically reset that process.

It wasn’t easy to remain. As soon as Mergenthal finished junior varsity football season, he played center for a Cedar Ridge men’s basketball team that went 1-23. Nonetheless, he suited up for 23 games, including the season’s lone win over Rockingham County.

“Staying at Cedar Ridge was a great decision,” Mergenthal said. “It taught me how to face adversity and I’m going to need that in college.”

It took a lot of stubbornness to stay around for a 1-win basketball season and a 1-10 football season last fall, when Cedar Ridge returned to varsity action.

Where did that stubbornness come from?

Perhaps the answer is Dusseldorf, Germany.

After spending his sixth grade year at Gravelly Hill Middle School, Braxton and his younger brother Jake moved to Europe. Their mother, Jessica Adams, got promoted to project manager with Bayer-Crop Science, which develops crop safety products for farmers. It led them away from Efland and into a whole new world.

“It was kind of like vacation,” Jessica said.

Until it wasn’t.

Jessica arrived home from work one day to find that Braxton had his bags packed. He informed his mother he was ready to return to Efland. At the age of 12, he assumed his mother and Todd would surely follow.

The only problem was Jessica was six months into a two-year assignment.

“I tried to explain that to him what the situation was,” said Jessica, who now works at BASF in Research Triangle Park. “I told him that before we went there. He said ‘No, I’m going home. If you want to stay, you stay.'”

Things got tense. Jake, who was ten, also got upset and ran to his room. Jessica followed to calm him down.

In the meantime, Braxton vanished.

Jessica scampered around the house only to find the Euros the family stored in a drawer taken. When she went outside, the garage door was open and Braxton wasn’t there. Neither was his bicycle.

Since they lived only two miles from Dusseldorf Airport, Braxton had decided to get a head start on his voyage home.

Jessica frantically drove around the streets looking for her son.

“I had no idea where he went,” Jessica said. “He had just decided he was leaving. There was so many bicyclists around Dusseldorf on the streets, he blended in very easily.”

After about an hour, Braxton sheepishly decided to backtrack. He couldn’t returned to Efland yet because he didn’t have a passport and he was underage to fly back to Raleigh-Durham Airport alone.

But he didn’t come home empty handed.

As he peddled back home, Braxton stopped by one of the many lavish flower fields in Dusseldorf.

“He cut a bunch of flowers for me and brought them home,” Jessica said.

“OK. I’m sorry,” Braxton said as he handed his mom the tulips. “I can stay another year.”

Then he headed upstairs.

“That was the end of that,” Jessica said. “He’s kind of hard headed. But he’s a sweet kid. Once he works through it on his own, he’s all-in.”

In his final year in Germany, Mergenthal improved his tackling technique by playing rugby.

He even learned a little German.

“I lost most of it once I came back, though,” Mergenthal said.

After he came home, Mergenthal was a three-sport athlete at Cedar Ridge. In addition to football and basketball, he played baseball in the spring under former head coach Jamie Athas. In his junior and senior seasons, he played defenseman on the lacrosse team.

“I love football,” Mergenthal said. “Let’s just say I thoroughly enjoy lacrosse.”

“When he first came out he could barely pass and catching was an adventure,” said Cedar Ridge lacrosse coach Patrick Kavanaugh. “But he stuck it out and became a solid contributor.  I am sorry he didn’t get a full season this year to show how much he has grown.”

Earlier this month, Mergenthal signed to play football at Division III Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia, in between Danville and Lynchburg.

“I toured the school and it was just fit,” Mergenthal said. “Everything was perfect. Academics had a lot to do with it I felt this was the place for me. I’m attracted by their business program and they have a great alumni program. So hopefully after college I’ll find a job.”

He also had offers from Division II Mars Hill and various Division III schools.

After a high school career filled with uncertainty, Mergenthal will start his college career the same way. Filled with idle time recently, Mergenthal has worked out constantly since in-person classes shut down in Orange County March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s already set for college football season, but has no idea when it will actually start this fall.

He’s not the only one.

Mergenthal finds himself set to graduate under the most unorthodox circumstances imaginable. As he departs for a destination not as far away as Germany, he’ll leave a lasting impact at Cedar Ridge by being, as late heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio coined it, the Last in Line.

“You could be the last, the strongest, and to me, it’s always been that,” Dio once said in an interview. “The perseverance that comes from going through challenges in life. And when you get to the end, and you’re the last one standing, and you ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?’ you better say yes. That’s gonna be my answer.”

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