To understand what football means to Andrew Ralph, you have to have laced up the spikes, strapped on the pads and buttoned the chin strap.
"The best way I can describe it is, if you haven't played, you don't know," said Ralph, who also plays basketball and baseball. "The feeling of emotion, effort, being on defense, bringing the energy every play, it's something I thrive off of."
Ralph brings those three Es to the safety position for Chesterton, where he's been a fixture since then-coach Jon Snyder plugged him in as a sophomore.
"Most kids coast by as freshmen and sophomores. Andrew seized the moment," first-year Trojans coach Mark Peterson said. "It's tough, being a three-sport athlete, but he's always on top of his game. His experience is invaluable. He's incredibly positive with the younger kids. He's just a natural leader."
A junior on a 10-senior defense last season, Ralph is the sole holdover in a new group that's learning on the fly. The unit was lit up for over 450 yards at South Bend St. Joseph and Ralph is doing his part to steady the ship.
"When people say, 'Oh, you've got 10 new guys,' as a group, we take it personally," Ralph said. "To us, who cares? We're 11 guys on the field working our butts off. Part of it was inexperience, part of it was first-game jitters, but we're watching film, learning. There's a lot of stuff to work on, but there were a lot of good things to build off of. You have to stay positive. Offense is going to be have good plays. It's how you take it. You have to stay positive, keep battling, stay motivated."
Known for his physical presence, Ralph also knows how important the mental side of football is. A 4.72 GPA student who ranks third in his class of 515, he's become an intuitive player who reacts without having to process. That split-second of time often determines the outcome of a play.
"The game starts to slow down," Ralph said. "That comes with experience. It's easy for me to pick up on stuff. You play fast, make reads, get to spots and make plays on the ball. You don't have to think about it. Your body just goes."
With so many newbies on defense, Ralph is one that Peterson doesn't have to worry about.
"We know we can tell him one time and he's going to get it right," Peterson said. "It's more than just being smart. It's football knowledge. Football's a simple game for Andrew and he's made it simpler. He's always in position, making the right reads, doing the right things, saying the right things. He's got a nose for the football. No one else can do what Andrew does."
A solid 180 pounds, Ralph excels in run support and also likes to leave his calling card with pass catchers down field.
"I've always been more of a hitter," he said. "I'm not one to sit back and drop into coverage. I want to come up and get in on the act. If you light up (a receiver), they're going to be thinking twice the next time."
The D-II/III recruit hopes to find a school that fits both his football and educational interests.
"I want to play in college, but it's always been academics first," he said.
For now, he wants to make some scrapbook memories, and his list doesn't include a mediocre senior season.
"It definitely puts a chip on our shoulder, to hear that," Ralph said. "I don't put a lot of stock in what people say. They don't know what we're capable of. We can definitely surprise a lot of people who are thinking that. We've got a lot to prove."