BELTON — Stop by Tiger Field to watch a Belton football practice or two this fall, and one may notice a few uniforms of a different color.
There, mixed in with the traditional red and white jerseys, signifying the Tigers’ natural color scheme, will be a handful of players donning black tops, each adorned with the number 11 and featuring “BTR” scribbled across the front in bold, capital white letters.
The acronym stands for “break the rock,” a nod to working hard every day, and has been a motto of the program for years now.
When talking about defensive lineman Gabe Kalama, Belton second-year head coach Brett Sniffin said the senior fits the adage perfectly.
“Gabe is ‘BTR’ personified,” he said. “He just continues to work hard. He never quits.”
When asked if he agreed with his coach’s sentiments, Kalama happily accepted the words of praise.
“Well, he doesn’t give me a lot of compliments, so, yeah, I’m going to take that one,” Kalama said while smiling on an overcast Tuesday morning just after the Tigers wrapped up practice as they prepared for their District 12-6A tilt with Killeen Shoemaker at 7 tonight at Leo Buckley Stadium.
It will mark Belton’s second straight Thursday road game against a Killeen team, and a Tigers’ win over the Grey Wolves (3-4, 2-3) would wrap up their first playoff spot since 2018, a year before any player on this year’s roster was a part of the varsity team.
Kalama said the team’s mood is in a good place heading into the skirmish.
“Most of the team now, if we don’t make it this year, we won’t ever see it, so it’s definitely a big thing for the team,” he said. “And, obviously, I haven’t seen playoffs before and I’d love that. It’d be amazing.”
Kalama did his part last week to get the Tigers (4-4, 3-2) to this point, putting up a season-high 10 tackles, two sacks and a hurry in Belton’s 22-12 win over Killeen Ellison, during which Belton almost matched its season total in sacks (seven) through seven games to that point with six.
From the way he made play after play from his spot at nose tackle, it’d be hard to believe that Kalama had only been playing the position since around late September, when the district slate began. But it’d be true.
Looking to maximize Kalama’s run-stopping abilities, coaches moved him from an end spot to nose tackle, and the sturdy 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has thrived since.
“If you watch the game film, he’s a strong dude,” Sniffin said. “He’s a little over 200 pounds, but he’s taking on double-teams at nose, and he’s holding his ground. We had a hard time finding a home for him. We knew we liked his athletic ability and the way he played, and we put him down there and he’s had great success for us.”
It’s been a season of change for Kalama in his final year as a Tiger. After starting football as a seventh-grader, he spent each year through 10th grade at inside linebacker before moving to outside linebacker during his junior year, his first on the varsity squad.
He then made the switch to the front line prior to his senior campaign, a move he welcomed.
“The thing about linebacker is I wasn’t, like, real good at pass (coverage),” he candidly admitted. “So, I kind of had to get moved down.”
Now being in the middle up front, where Belton typically employs a three-man line rather than a more traditional four-man line, means Kalama sees plenty of double-teams through the course of an average Friday night.
But, with physical strength being one of his top attributes, it also fits right in his wheelhouse.
He said techniques taught by defensive line coach Brandon Faubion and defensive coordinator Christopher Harbin also have helped in terms of finding ways to overcome double-teams.
“You have to get low, for one thing,” he said. “(If) you put your chest up, you’re getting put on the ground every time. You want to lower your shoulder and give them as least amount of space as possible to push you.”
And as far as strength goes, Kalama has basically grown up in the gym, taking cues from his father, Kelly.
Kalama developed an appreciation for weight lifting at an early age, when, as a 5- or 6-year-old, he simply wanted to spend time with his dad. By the age of 13, he started taking working out more seriously, and it’s been a fixture in his life since.
“My dad raised me in a gym, so anything that contains a bar or a dumbbell, I’m kind of always there,” said Kalama, also a powerlifter and track and field competitor who moved to Belton in fourth grade after living in Colorado and Kentucky.
His father, a recently retired sergeant major who spent 29 years in the U.S. Army and who also played football growing up, is Kalama’s most influential person as far as piquing his interest in the game.
“Definitely my dad, one hundred percent,” Kalama said. “He always talked about it growing up, and I was always thought, ‘That seems really cool to do.’ And, I just kind of fell in love with it.”
Kalama now uses the muscle he’s gained through years of lifting, along with his nonstop motor and workmanlike approach, to give him an advantage on the football field.
It’s a recipe he hopes others notice and maybe implement a bit themselves.
“I feel like every play, I have to go 100 percent at nose (tackle),” Kalama said. “Being at the center of the defense, straight in the middle of it, I feel like if I put my head down, a lot of people can put their head down, too.”
Put their heads down, and go to work.