On the eve of the Park View High School football team's second game of the season, fullback Nelson Stickley was leafing through a magazine when he came upon a photograph that first made him wince and then smile.
It was a gruesome image of an athlete clutching his lower leg, his ankle fractured and dislocated, a piece of bone sticking out of his skin.
"Man, that was disgusting," Stickley said, "but it also looked kind of cool. My friends and I were laughing about it."
The following afternoon, Stickley had amassed 100 yards and three touchdowns through the first two quarters of the Patriots' eventual 56-6 victory over Courtland. And for good reason, the 5-foot-11 junior was starting to think "career day."
But on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Stickley took the snap and ran back up the middle. Just beyond the line, he was confronted by a linebacker. Stickley tried to hurdle him.
"I went up in the air, he hit me, and I heard something snap," Stickley said. "While I was on the ground, I immediately thought about that picture. It wasn't funny anymore."
Luckily for Stickley, he could look back on that moment and laugh at his overreaction. It was just a bad sprain, and it forced him out of only one game. But its lingering pain was plenty enough to throw a season jammed with expectations way off course.
Last season as a sophomore, Stickley benefited from Park View's implementation of the single-wing offense. In this system, the ball carrier runs behind a cloud of intricate fakes and a bevy of blockers, confusing defenses. As a result, Stickley ran for more than 1,800 yards, leading Park View to a berth in the AA Division 4 Region 2 finals. With an extra year of physical and emotional maturation, Stickley expected to surpass that figure as a junior.
"I thought about that loss [in the regional finals] all summer," Stickley said. "That, and the rushing, I was really excited to play this season."
Neither Stickley nor anyone else will know what kind of effect his injury had on Park View. Though the Patriots had their lowest scoring output of the season when Stickley sat (a 25-3 victory over Osbourn), his absence might have opened the door for his teammates and a 12-0 season.
With Stickley playing the majority of the time less than full strength, the rest of the Patriots have surpassed expectations. Quarterback Nick Smith has rushed for 866 yards, running back Dustin Dudinski has gained nearly 500 yards both rushing and receiving, and even blocking back Joe Larson, who rarely touches the ball, is approaching 300 both rushing and receiving. The Patriots have scored a school-record 506 points.
"We have a much more balanced offense this season," Thompson said. "We don't have to rely on him as much. But that has also helped him become a more complete back. Because we have other [offensive] threats, he has had to learn how to block and fake better."
Blocking and faking don't find their way into the box score, and that might have been a little humbling for Stickley.
"It was more a mental thing than physical for him," Larson said. "He was so used to running over people so easily, that when he was hurt, it might have hurt his confidence a bit. So it was slow for him getting back."
But Stickley is back, and look no further than last Saturday's 56-22 victory over Charlottesville for proof. As he rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, he cut corners at his top speed and showed no hesitancy making a quick juke or plowing into a linebacker. He has rushed for 1,217 yards and 15 touchdowns, a career year for most.
Earlier in the season, "it kind of felt weird," Stickley said, "because we were expected to win, and I was expected to run for all these yards. When I came back, I was hitting holes, but not as quickly as I was before.
"It wasn't until the playoffs that I really felt like I was back, that I felt myself. Now I feel like I'm doing my part."