LA CROSSE — During one summer night, Alex Jay spent his evening as many high school kids do after a sweltering day in western Kansas. The La Crosse senior laid in bed and “binged” on cookie dough ice cream.
He was not devouring the sweet treat in an attempt to recover from the heat, though. Instead, he was tearing up. He was depressed.
He thought his true love — his football career — had come to an abrupt end.
As the La Crosse football team had been doing every Wednesday, the guys went to Fort Hays State for camp when Jay suffered a flashback to his freshman year.
On the last play of the day, Jay and another player’s legs got twisted up and fell when he felt a pop in his knee.
His left ACL, the same one he tore as a freshman, was gone.
“I freaked out a little bit,” Jay said. “And then I was sitting at home one night — I was waiting for my MRI results, I just went that day — and coach (John) Webster came over and told me. … So I started crying. I thought my season was gonna be over.
“I thought I would be done so I texted the team right away, said I was done. I was crying, sitting in my room just binging on ice cream, just depressed. Then the doctor, he said just go ahead and play on it.”
When Jay consulted with his doctor, he was given the green light.
They both knew he was going to have to have surgery on it one way or another. He was told ‘go ahead and go as far as you can in the season.”
Jay isn’t playing out of selfishness and one last shot at getting back on the field, though.
“I’ve been rehabbing and stuff every day, trying to be an example for the rest of the team, you know,” Jay said. “Don’t make excuses — you don’t need ‘em. Either you want it or you’re gonna be lazy.”
Jay, who suffered a broken leg as a sophomore year and had issues with his meniscus last season, is not the only Leopard to catch the injury bug.
In last season’s opener Sept. 5 at a neutral-site game with Olpe, Clayton Herdman returned for his sophomore season as a starting wide receiver for the second consecutive year. Midway through the third quarter, Herdman had hauled in a 34-yard reception and a 22-yard reception, two plays Webster said helped–º extend drives and wound up in points for the Leopards. On a play every team runs multiple times, a trap run, Herdman was blocking when former Leopard Sheldon Schmidt was shoved from behind and rolled up on Herdman’s ankle.
The ankle was dislocated. Every ligament was torn, on top of suffering a broken leg. Herdman’s first reaction was asking his team’s trainer if he tape it up and can go back into the game.
“He was off to a great start,” Webster said. “... He was really starting to come out of his shell as a freshman. You could see major steps he made as a sophomore. When Sheldon fell on him, it was one those things you knew it was because of the way it happened. … He was in shock instantly. He had a real good attitude about it. It’s devastating when you see a kid work so hard and get his season taken away when it’s completely out of his control.”
On the ambulance ride from Newton to Wichita, Herdman did not have much interest in the medical care he was about to receive, but was more interested in following his team’s 28-8 win over the eventual 2-1A champion.
“I remember I was on the stretcher going back to the ambulance and one of my friends was walking with me,” Herdman said. “I was like, ‘Can you go to the locker room and get my phone? I wanna listen to the game.’ I sat there — it was like a 20-minute drive all the Wichita and I was just trying to figure out how I’m gonna get this game on my phone because my internet wasn’t working. … Finally when I was just sitting there I saw some Tweets and people were texting me and I got a phone call saying we won the game.”
While in the ambulance, Herdman even took a selfie on his stretcher for Twitter. For such a horrific injury, Herdman handled the entire situation with no excuses. After three days in a hospital bed and five months on crutches, he returned for the final two weeks of the basketball season and the entire track season.
“It’s definitely just mind boggling,” Jay said. “That kid … he’s just an awesome kid. He’s got a motor on him, he loves to work and he’s definitely a big asset to the team and is an athlete all around. It’s just crazy to see how he can come back so fast and be back to where he’s at already.
“His injury was pretty severe. I watched it happen. I was on the sideline cringing myself. I’m thinking, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ It’s kind of a friendly rivalry back and forth, even with maxes and stuff. We try to see who’s gonna get be better. He’s definitely an inspiring kid.”
It wasn’t always easy for Herdman. During the team’s lone loss of the regular season, the injury really began to weigh on him. But being able to come back at full health has been worth the wait.
“It was against Southeast of Saline where it was really hitting me hard,” I was like, ‘I could be out there helping my guys’ while I’m just on the sidelines not really doing anything — all I can try to do is coach up the young kids.
“I remember I was sitting there playing and then it all got taken away from me. When you come back, you realize this is a game that can be taken away from you in a second, so you have to go as hard as you can on every play to have your opportunities to play.”
After starting at safety and wide receiver, Herdman now is making the adjustment to quarterback. With an arm that he has been confident in since freshman year and improved speed, he is thrilled to take over the responsibilities that come with being the team’s shot caller.
“The quarterback always has a little bit more responsibility than everybody else,” Herdman said. “You’re responsible for everyone knowing what they’re doing, the play schemes, calling up the plays — it’s just more of a role to have than a usual guy. It’s still a team effort and you gotta work together.”
But La Crosse has work to do in 2014. With a new quarterback, the team also is replacing its four leading rushers and three leading rushers on offense. Jay is the lone returning senior starter on the team with the lowest turnout in Webster’s era. On defense, juniors Jasey Woods and Kaleb Sherman led the Leopards with 97 and 78 tackles last season to go along with 23 combined tackles for loss.
The offensive and defensive lines returns valuable experience and former Plainville head coach Joe Simon joined Webster’s staff. With the pieces where they are, Webster said the key to another great season is staying healthy and sacrificing. With preaching the phrase ‘love the process,’ his two leaders returning from injuries are perfect examples.
“It’s great leadership,” Webster said. “You see a kid like Alex … his teammates mean so much to him, this program, being a senior — it means so much to him. He’s willing to sacrifice other problems because he wants to play. That just shows the kids that ‘If Alex is sacrificing the surgery and his knee that I can sacrifice myself on this drill. My gut hurts, but I can go an extra rep in the weight room.’
“That’s the sacrifice we talk about. Usually when we talk about sacrifice it’s time, it’s out with a girlfriend, it’s something like that. This is a big sacrifice and it sets to the tone for the other kids. … That shows a commitment that all of our kids need to have to be successful.”