Don't tell Bubba Brady that Friday's Maryland High School Football All-Star Game is an exhibition. Don't tell him to relax and take it easy for the last time in a high school uniform. Most of all, don't tell him the game doesn't mean anything.
Every game has added meaning for Brady. Last year, he missed half of his senior season at Calvert with a stubborn knee injury, and he was far from healthy in the other half.
A four-year varsity player and a three-year starter, Brady long envisioned reaping the fruits of that effort -- a chance to captain his team to the postseason, earn a college scholarship and be recognized as one of the state's elite linemen in his senior year.
Tomorrow night at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium, Brady will have the opportunity to show what he can really do when he is healthy. Kickoff is set for 7:30.
"I want to make up for what I lost my senior season," said Brady, who signed with Division II Shepherd University (W.Va.) in March. "I'm back to full speed and full strength. I want to show people what I couldn't do [in the regular season]. They didn't get to see me at my full potential."
More important, Brady, a two-time All-Southern Maryland Athletic Conference offensive lineman, did not get to see himself at his full potential. At this time last summer, he was just coming off a stirring performance at Penn State's camp for rising juniors and seniors.
Two days before the start of practice in August, however, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Brady suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. It happened in a freak accident at his summer job when a tractor wheel accidentally rolled up on his leg.
Brady missed a month of practice and the Cavaliers' first game. In his season debut, he aggravated the injury against La Plata and missed the next four games.
Calvert quarterback Tyler Herrick said Brady maintained his presence around the team, even though he couldn't join them on the field.
"It was so difficult on him," said Herrick, who will be a senior at Huntingtown next month. "It's your senior year and colleges are looking at you and you can't do anything about it.
"He was still a leader off the field. He was watching us, helping us with what we were doing, telling us what we were doing wrong. . . . He was still the hardest-working guy on the team. He was in the weight room more than anyone else, the first one there and the last one to leave."
Brady might have been given clearance to play when he returned to the field against Great Mills on Oct. 16, but he was not the player he was three months earlier. A clunky brace covered his knee. It was the midseason, and Brady was still in training-camp mode, playing with hesitancy and caution.
"I believe I wanted to feel [okay] all season," Brady said, "but [the injury] was always in the back of my mind. That brace, it was always there. You knew it was there, even though you tried to ignore it."
With a 3-6 record and no hopes of qualifying for the playoffs, Calvert played its final regular season game at Patuxent. It made no difference to Brady. It was his last game in a Calvert uniform.
"He single-handedly kicked our butts that night," said Patuxent Coach Steve Crounse of Calvert's 37-0 victory. "It says something about the kid. The kid played four years there, and he wanted to stand out on that field one last time the way he wanted to."
But Brady was not done. Over the next three months, Brady ran drills -- starting, stopping, cutting -- to strengthen his knee before he could trust it without the brace. "Man, I'm starting to get back out there," Brady said he would tell himself each night.
Tryouts for the all-star game loomed on April 18, a month after Brady signed with Shepherd, and it would have been easy for him to skip them. The game was another chance to get hurt and risk a college career that seemed back on track.
Brady spoke with his father about Chris Kelley, the Seneca Valley quarterback and 1999 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year, who tore knee ligaments in a summer all-star game less than a month before reporting to the University of Maryland. It was the first of three severe knee injuries for Kelley, who has never lived up to his lofty expectations.
Bubba "wanted to do this," Robert Brady said. "We talked about the possibility of injury and how people have handled it over the years. We were talking about Chris Kelley the other day, and he said how you never know when injuries are going to happen. If you're scared about [injuries], that's when you get hurt."
Terry Caulley, the All-Met Offensive Player of the Year at Patuxent, declined an offer to play in a senior all-star game in 2002, "pretty much for precautionary reasons. There's no point in taking a risk."
For Brady, however, his high school career did not end like Caulley's in the Maryland 3A title game, or even while playing to his potential, like so many other standout players who shunned all-star games.
"They all finished on a healthy note their senior years," Brady said. "I want to finish mine off with my full capabilities and one more good game. My high school career didn't end like that, like the way I wanted it to. I want it to [end the right way] with this game."