A few days before the season opener last year, Annandale running back James Milliner helped his friends out in a fight and broke his hand. He missed the first five games and never got into a groove the remainder of the season.
But what could have been a total disaster had its positive side as well: It made the 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior realize his fervor for the game.
"I knew I wanted to play football and breaking my hand made me realize how bad," he said. "I played this year with a whole new intensity."
Did he ever. He was the foundation of an Annandale offense that's compiled 462 points in 12 games. Milliner has rushed for more than 2,200 yards and scored 31 touchdowns while leading the Atoms to the Virginia AAA Division 6 state semifinals against Hampton of Virginia Beach this Saturday at W.T. Woodson at 1:30.
He was the Washington area's leading scorer in the regular season and the third leading rusher, and he did it behind an offensive line that averages 180 pounds with no lineman over 200.
He's also become the master of the breakaway run. His portfolio includes 13 touchdown runs of 40 yards or more, including runs of 86, 89, 97 and 99 yards. And most of these are done after spinning away from or running over would-be tacklers.
"I try to run with power mixed with speed," he said. "I hit the line pretty fast, and if they don't have a hand on me within a second or two, I'm gone. When I do break loose you can kind of tell the difference. You can see my head gets to bobbing when I'm happy."
His happiest moments came this past weekend against a highly touted and previously undefeated T.C. Williams team. The Titans were renowned for their defense and in the regular season "held" Milliner to 96 yards -- his lowest output of the season -- while handing the Atoms their only loss, 28-14.
But Milliner would have none of that last week. He became the first opposition running back in T.C. Williams Coach Glenn Furman's nine-year tenure to rush for 200 yards, which included runs of 41 yards in the first quarter and 86 yards in the second quarter.
"I don't think we were prepared for T.C. that early in the year," Milliner said. "We were a lot more prepared this time. It was what I was waiting for all year long and it came out better than I expected."
"I don't see any tools that he's lacking," said Furman. "Some guys get 250 yards one week and 30 the next. He gets good yardage against all teams, which is the sign of a good back."
Even with these accomplishments, he can only get better. Milliner is one of those natural-born Adonises who have a fantastic physique without ever lifting weights. "I don't even like lifting weights," he said. "I think I've lifted weights three times in my whole life."
But he plans on lifting this winter to help him prepare for college, although he has yet to decide where he will attend. Among others, Notre Dame, Miami, Penn State and Michigan have corresponded with him.
When he does go to school he plans on majoring in psychology. When Milliner was 13, his parents separated and he "became the man of the house," which included his mother and younger sister. "When you live with all girls," he said, "you get to see things from the male point of view and from the other side too. I'm interested in people and I think I can help people."
He's already started with some teammates. He saw a talented player on the freshman team a few years ago, but the player went awry and quit the team. Milliner talked to the player, who came back to the team and now starts. "I believe in being a positive role model . . . and I try to be a leader," he said.
He'll need to come through again as the Atoms face the most successful team in state history. Hampton (11-1) is making its 14th consecutive playoff appearance and has won 12 state titles.
"We're not intimidated by them," said Milliner. "Our offense can play with anybody. But we're not going to take them for granted."