Editor's note: This story is featured in the Daily Citizen-News' weekly high school football Touchdown! section. Grab an issue in papers on Fridays during football season, or stop by our office for a copy.
The football was on Ringgold High School's artificial turf last Friday night, so Cristian Lama pounced on it. The Dalton senior defensive lineman rose to his feet, then celebrated by holding the ball aloft in his right hand -- an official lunged at the pigskin with both hands in vain -- while sprinting to the sideline.
The party had only begun.
Moments later, a teammate grabbed the defense's "turnover mask" and pulled it over Lama's face. In this young season, Lama was the first Catamount to don the "luchador"-style professional wrestling mask (Dalton red, of course, with white accents around the eyes and nose) to celebrate getting a turnover. It debuted last season against Allatoona.
"I ran over there and everybody was like 'The mask!'" Lama said, showing it off Tuesday at his locker in the high school field house before practice. "Then Tyson (Swope) grabbed it and put it on me. It was awesome. I went and strutted along the sidelines."
The turnover mask was inspired by the spate of props teams use to reward players after a recovered fumble, interception or blocked kick, from the University of Miami's "turnover chain" that started the madness to Georgia's spiked shoulder pads.
Lama, a three-year starter for the Catamounts, isn't one of those lifetime football players. He didn't start playing until the seventh grade, instead pursuing golf his first year in middle school.
"I was kind of mediocre, then in eighth grade I fell in love with it once I actually started learning and everything that goes into playing around the ball," he said. "After that I really started enjoying it."
That enthusiasm for the sport paid off as Lama started his first game in 2017 against Calhoun. The Yellow Jackets were coming off a state championship title the year before, and Lama said he felt the nerves before the game.
"I was real nervous. I was a sophomore, starting, against Calhoun. Once I went through the game a little bit, I got warmed up to it a little bit," Lama said. "That whole year I had butterflies and all kinds of stuff."
Those butterflies are long gone as he has become an important part of the defense, head coach Matt Land said. In 2018, Lama was a first team Daily Citizen-News All Area Football member with 43 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Lama has a strong link to Dalton High. His parents Juan and Susan graduated from there in the 1980s. His brother Nicky played football for the Catamounts before graduating in May. And his sister Lele is a freshman at Dalton High.
"He's a great, great kid," Land said. "Definitely a hard worker. He certainly knows the tradition of Dalton High School and our football program and knows what we are trying to build here."
Dalton is also looking to build on a quick start to the season. Following last Friday night's 62-10 win over Ringgold, Dalton faces county rival Northwest Whitfield at home tonight.
"We're going to be all fired up," Lama said. "I just have to be mentally sound, do what I'm supposed to do."
If that happens, Lama could have a repeat performance in the turnover mask.