Alek Downs barely had finished practice Sept. 19 and sweat was pouring down the senior linebacker’s face.

But once Westerville North High School football coach Scott Wetzel wrapped up a short talk and the huddle broke, Downs jogged directly to the fence surrounding the practice field and picked up a 10-pound sledgehammer.

Painted gold and maroon, the school’s colors, the words “Hammer Down” adorned the handle.

It is awarded to the star of the game every week, and Downs earned the honor after a 25-yard interception return in the second quarter Sept. 15 helped extend the Warriors’ lead in a 47-21 win over Canal Winchester. The winner carries the sledgehammer to and from every practice.

“Hammer Down” is the slogan of a defense overseen by coordinator Ty Stover, a former Bowling Green player, and led in part by Downs.

“It’s something we’ve really put our identity in this year,” said Downs, a third-year starter at middle linebacker who also plays offensive guard. “ ‘Hammer Down’ is a way to put your foot in the ground and change the culture. I got the hammer (after the Canal Winchester game), but it’s definitely more a team thing.”

Coming off a 27-26 overtime loss at New Albany on Sept. 22, North is 2-3 entering its OCC-Buckeye Division opener Friday, Sept. 29, at Olentangy Orange.

Downs’ 26 tackles through four games were second on the team behind Greg Shehee’s 27.

“Alek is a true leader who will bring the intensity on both sides. He will do his job every play. He’s the kind of guy you feed off of,” quarterback/defensive back Jacob Woods said. “He can change momentum with one big play. He has a knack for finding himself in the right spot.”

Downs is the youngest of four sons who have played for North – Luke, a 2013 graduate who played on the defensive line; Jake, a 2015 graduate who started at quarterback for two years; and Derek, a 2017 graduate who now is a lineman at Bowling Green.

Jake was quarterback the night North snapped a 45-game losing streak, defeating Franklin Heights in the 2013 season opener.

“Probably the biggest crime is his mom and dad have four boys and (Alek) is the last one,” Wetzel deadpanned. “They’re great kids. They put the team first; no ‘I’ or me. They are leaders by example. They come out and people want to rally around them.”

Alek Downs said Jake was at the game against Canal Winchester and saw his first career interception. Alek’s second pick came against New Albany.

“North football is family,” Downs said. “My oldest brother never won a high school football game, and so it means a lot to me to be here and win games. That’s what my goal is here, to change the culture and win games.”

Rondale Smith rushed for 83 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries against New Albany. The Warriors led 20-10 in the third quarter and fell behind in overtime, but got within a point on John Fernandez’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Reynolds.

North went for the game-winning two-point conversion, but Reno Godfrey’s pass to Rodney Van Cleaf fell incomplete.

Coming off a 50-14 win over Newark on Sept. 22, Orange is 5-0 for the first time in program history.

Downs has been offered by Air Force and also is receiving interest from some Ivy League and Division II schools, but his immediate goal is helping North earn its first league win since 2014.

“It’s through hardship that you build and grow,” Downs said. “We are executing well, and we understand our defense better than last year. We trust each other more in our roles now.”

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave