By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
But he immediately showed aptitude for the sport. He was very quick and had a love of contact. He wasn't loud about it and wasn't overly aggressive; he just had this almost eerie comfort on the field. I was astonished at how he could take down much bigger and more experienced players.
Early on in his playing days, though, he got a glimpse of the dark side of the sport. During practice, he went head-to-head, literally, with another player who happened to be a longtime friend. The hit left the other boy writhing and crying on the ground. He'd suffered a tiny crack in a neck bone. He sat out three or four weeks as it healed.
Both learned that day to keep their heads up when hitting.
The coaches dumped 35 in the pool of defensive linemen. Obviously, he was undersized for that position, which is generally occupied by behemoths. But soon, he was starting games, making plays, doing what football players do. He registered a number of sacks, but his real specialty, in my opinion, was stopping the run. He plugged his gap with the best of them.
That year ended with a first-round playoff loss to a team from the south Broward town of Pasadena Lakes. Afterward, the coaches gave him the "Most Improved Player" trophy. It boded well for his future on the team.
Early on in that 2007 season, Coach Joe would point him out at practice and talk about how he was proof that heart and will was all that mattered in this sport. He wasn't a star, just solid, a blue-collar player who did his job and never stopped.
The team overcame a so-so start and by midseason came together to become a powerhouse in the league with a 7-3 record. The year didn't end, though, without a couple more visits from the disease.
We beat Boca Raton in the first round of the playoffs but not before the head coach's son, a bruising fullback, suffered a broken leg on a brutal hit. He made it with considerable help to the bench, but paramedics had to load him into the ambulance on a stretcher.
The next week, we faced West Pines, which was riding a monumental 37-game winning streak that included two straight Super Bowl wins.
We had the upper hand 11-6 in the fourth quarter when Pines began trying to mount a comeback drive. On a big fourth-down play, the West Pines quarterback dropped back to pass. Flying at him was 35. The quarterback flung the ball just before the collision. One of our players — the very same kid who'd suffered that neck injury the year before — made an interception. Though my son had done the hitting, this time it was 35 who rose up in terrible pain.
As the offense took the field, he walked over to me in the stands.
"My back," he said, tears streaking down his field-worn face. "It hurts."
He'd forgotten to keep his head up. He didn't go back into the game, a classic that ended 11-6. The West Pines streak was over, and we were going to the Super Bowl. The team was elated, but 35 could barely get around. That week, the doctor informed us that he'd cracked a couple of small bones in his lower back called phalanges. Thankfully, there wasn't much risk of longtime ill effects from the injury, but it would hurt like crazy for a month or two.
Football was, of course, out of the question. Yet he insisted on dressing for a practice, even though he couldn't play.
We lost the Super Bowl the next week to Weston by one touchdown. The winning drive included a crucial defensive offside penalty, and the touchdown run came through a gaping hole on what would have been 35's side of the line.
Despite the injury, destiny seemed to point to the idea that next year would be the year this Plantation team took the title.
Of course, I was sold completely now; my misgivings about him playing football had vanished. It took me back to my playing days, made me wish I hadn't quit so soon and could play again. Was I reliving the sport through my son? Of course I was.
Yes, the disease was flourishing after a long remission, and it made me think back almost three decades to a patch of grass a thousand miles away.
I was 10 years old and playing defensive end, my whole being focused on the quarterback standing behind the line. The kid was small, but he was supposed to be a hotshot. I wasn't sure why, but I desperately wanted to crush him.
It was early in the game when it happened. He tried to run the ball around the tackle — right into my wheelhouse. I had a perfect bead on him. Like all hellacious hits, it felt like slow motion. I flew into him with everything I had. It seemed like he started screaming before he hit the ground.
He thought (wrongly) that his ribs were broken. I got up and let out a primal yell. My teammates ran over to me for congratulations. I looked into the stands, and all the parents were cheering wildly, louder than the screams of the boy beneath me.