When former Sun Valley coach Scott Stein arrived to summer workouts before the start of last season, he was impressed by what he saw from a sophomore running back who was hoping to win a starting job.
The 6-foot, 200-pound back possessed game-breaking speed, elite vision, soft hands and quick feet. But Stein noticed the kid lacked one attribute that’s since helped transform Albert Funderburke into someone who can become one of the state’s most productive and feared running backs.
“I didn’t like the contact and I didn’t want to run up the middle,” said Funderburke, who is now a junior. “(Coach Stein) taught me how to be a man and how to run through the middle. Before last year I tried to turn everything outside.
“But now I love it. I can take a lot of contact now and I enjoy dishing it out, too.”
The results of that adjustment paid off in a big way last season, as Funderburke produced a monster season consisting of 2,243 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground and an additional 34 receptions for 410 yards and six scores through the air.
When coach Paul Hall took over the Spartans’ program this summer after Stein moved on to Myers Park, he knew his star running back was going to be a focal point of defenses.
“Albert runs heavier than he is,” Hall said. “He’s a lean back, but he really sizes you up and he’s hard to get a hold of. He’s a physical back, and he doesn’t mind running into people and he breaks tackles.
“When he gets outside it’s usually the second or third guy who gets a hold of him. It’s very rare the first guy or even the first couple of guys are going to bring him down.”
In the Spartans’ Week 1 loss to Charlotte Christian, the Knights’ defense – like every other team Funderburke will face in his career – was keying on him. Despite being bottled up for three quarters, Funderburke got loose, busting a long run for a touchdown on a swing pass and adding another score in his 184-yard performance.
The next week was more of the same, as Funderburke ran 23 times for 328 yards and three touchdowns against Hoke County and had another long touchdown jaunt called back for a penalty.
“He’s special. I mean he’s a special guy,” Hall said. “Those guys from Hoke Country weren’t slow and he ran away from then four times. I mean he ran away from them. Those guys had speed and a lot of times had angles on him, but he ran away from them.
“Either they didn’t want any part of it or he’s that fast.”
It could be either of Hall’s options, but one thing’s for sure: Funderburke is fast.
The phone in the Spartans’ athletic office rings multiple times a day, Hall said, with inquiries about Funderburke. On a recent Thursday, coaches called from North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Duke and South Carolina – but that’s typical for Hall and the Spartan coaches.
So far, college coaches have been hesitant to offer Funderburke because he hasn’t timed out in the 40-yard dash the way they’d like, Hall said.
“We went up to Carolina and he ran a 4.6 or something like that,” Hall said. “He doesn’t really know how to get off the line with that track start yet, but when get that down he’ll get his time way down.
“On the field, though, that’s different. He’s faster than everybody.”
Funderburke said that, with his new-found love of attacking the middle of opposing defenses, he’s even more dangerous than ever – something that should keep opposing coaches up at night devising schemes to try to slow him down.
“I have great vision, I can see the field well,” he said. “I can be physical and make people miss or I can run with people. To me, it doesn’t matter, I try to do whatever I can to get the job done.”
When Funderburke gets to the outside or finds a crease on the interior of a defense, it usually results in six points on the scoreboard.
“I just think about getting to the end zone,” he said. “Once I get to the hole, that’s all I’m thinking is getting a touchdown.”
Hall said he wants to take advantage of his dynamic running back as much as possible, but knows that in order for the Spartans to reach their full potential, other players are going to have to continue to step up.
“It’s pretty obvious he’s a big part of our offense and we plan for him to get a certain number of touches,” Hall said. “But as a staff, we need to get more weapons around him because they would help each other.
“The thing is, Albert makes the other people around him better. If other people can make a few plays, that will make Albert better, too.”
Quarterback Drew Swoope has done well in his first season at the helm and has other options to lean on, such as running back P.J. Lotharp and receiver Courtland Stout. But in the end, how well Sun Valley ultimately does depends in large part to how far Funderburke can take them.
Funderburke said he’s always wanted to be in the position he’s in now as the star of one of Union County’s most successful programs. Growing up, he wanted to best his older brother, Justin, who starred at Parkwood before playing for UNC-Pembroke.
“I wanted to be like him, so I tried to do what I could to be better than him,” Funderburke said. “It’s been good for me, because I always looked up to him and wanted to beat what he did.”
With more than 3,000 total yards –including 2,600 rushing – in just 16 games, Funderburke is poised to leave his big brother and a lot of other county runners in his wake. And just like he does on the football field, his assault on the record books gets better with time.
Former Forest Hills’ running back Anthony McNeely holds the county mark with 4,948 career yards, but Funderburke will likely be the county’s premier runner if he can keep up his pace.
“I’m not a really big talker, but I bring it to the field and bring it every day so that my game talks for me,” Funderburke said. “I want to beat my rushing yards from last year. I want us to play as a team and win as a team and be more of a leader.”
Hall said he can already see Funderburke’s growth and is excited to see where his star junior can finish his career.
“Albert’s a late-in-the-game guy because we don’t have to use him but for offense,” Hall said. “And he’s not only a good running back, but he’s a physical football player.
“You hate to say it, but he could play anywhere and be good. He could be a good defender and could play a lot of places, but he’s a darn good running back and we’re glad to have him.”