One injury, two struggles: How a football play left lasting impacts

The lingering influence of a collision during a 2019 WCAC football game

Running back Antwain Littleton had a strong start to his redshirt freshman season at Maryland.
Running back Antwain Littleton had a strong start to his redshirt freshman season at Maryland. (Gail Burton/AP)

Antwain Littleton II had finished another football practice at the University of Maryland when he returned to his College Park apartment to devour shrimp for dinner.

As he sat to eat in early May, Littleton scrolled through his Instagram feed and paused on a post. It was a video created by someone chronicling their depression after multiple sports injuries, including one that caused them to leave football.

Littleton had stuffed away his guilt, but it resurfaced as he watched the video.

Growing up in New Carrollton, Md., Littleton developed his identity around football. Youth coaches put the massive kid at defensive tackle, but when Littleton returned a kickoff 50 yards as a 10-year-old, they experimented with him at other positions. On Littleton’s first play as quarterback, he ran on a read-option for an 80-yard touchdown. He moved to running back and earned the nickname “Baby Bus” as a seventh-grader.

He carried on that reputation at St. John’s, where he grew to 285 pounds and generated widespread attention for bulldozing through high school defenders in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference; a highlight run in a nationally televised game in September 2019 prompted rapper Wale to tweet about him.

Two months later, on another run, Littleton collided with a DeMatha defensive back during a play that has continued to impact both people.

That defensive back, a couple years later, produced a 32-minute video to inspire others. When Littleton saw it, he exited his kitchen and called his mother to express his sorrow. He had lost his appetite.

A football upbringing

As children, Cole Donaldson and his older brothers would play football from their knees on the living room rug, resulting in bruises and a passion for the sport.

At birthday parties, Donaldson’s father, Cliff, spray-painted lines on their backyard for two-hand touch clashes. Every Friday night in the fall, Donaldson and his family attended games at the local high school, Queen Anne’s County (Md.), where Donaldson sprinted around the track with friends.

During one of his first games for the Upper Queen Anne’s Lions as an 8-year-old, Donaldson declared to a family friend on the sideline: “When I touch the ball for the first time, I’m going to run for a touchdown.” On the first play from scrimmage, Donaldson took a handoff and broke free for a 70-yard score.

He went on to play at DeMatha, and on the morning of Nov. 16, 2019, he awoke to the fall breeze from outside his window. He showered, ate breakfast and hopped into his dad’s Honda for the 90-minute commute to Hyattsville, where the Stags would meet in their parking lot for a walk-through before heading over to St. John’s for a WCAC semifinal.

Donaldson, a sophomore who had received interest from a Power Five program, asked himself that Saturday while roaming his school’s hallways, “When I look at myself in the mirror [after the game], can I be proud of myself?”

After the team’s 25-minute drive to Northwest Washington, Donaldson exited the bus last, ready for the biggest game of his life.

The play

As Donaldson took deep breaths and taped his wrists on the visitors’ sideline, Littleton practiced taking handoffs on the field.

St. John’s got out to a 10-0 lead, and with 6:19 remaining in the first half, it lined up at the 19-yard line. The Cadets called an outside running play for Littleton; the Stags called a zone defense. Littleton took the handoff and ran about 11 yards to his right as Donaldson stuck with an opposing wide receiver.

When Donaldson, 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, saw Littleton running toward him, he stopped and crouched. Before Donaldson could get in a proper tackling position, Littleton stumbled over his back and struck it with his knee. Donaldson heard a pop and fell to the turf.

Teammates told Donaldson to stand up, but he couldn’t. DeMatha trainer Wendy Norris ran onto the field, felt Donaldson’s back and told fellow trainers to call an ambulance.

“Hold on,” Donaldson recalled telling Norris. “What do you mean call the ambulance? Ms. Wendy, I’m not getting on the ambulance. I can’t do that.”

As reality set in, Donaldson erupted in tears. He believed his sports career was over.

Littleton watched from the opposite sideline as he and teammates discussed what had gone awry. As the ambulance drove on the turf, DeMatha’s players huddled around Donaldson. His mother, Susan, sprinted toward him.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Yeah, mom,” Donaldson responded through tears. “I’m good.” Donaldson’s mother preached toughness after growing up on a Virginia farm, and for the first time, Donaldson saw her cry.

Trainers removed Donaldson’s helmet and jersey and strapped him to a stretcher. Paramedics raised Donaldson into the ambulance; DeMatha and St. John’s players knelt near him for a prayer.

Littleton refocused and rushed for a seven-yard touchdown with 3:54 remaining in the half in the Cadets’ eventual 34-20 victory. Meanwhile, paramedics rushed Donaldson 20 minutes to MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

‘What am I doing with my life?’

Donaldson couldn’t sleep that night as he listened to the heart monitor and watched his dad doze off in a recliner chair. Donaldson’s feet were warm, so he shuffled his legs to try to remove his socks; after 20 minutes of failed attempts, he cried.

“What am I doing with my life?,” Donaldson asked himself. “I feel so useless and so helpless. I might as well just be dead.”

The next day, Donaldson learned he broke three lumbar vertebrae that support his spine. Doctors said returning to sports might someday be possible. Donaldson had been diagnosed with Lyme disease at age 9 and endured five serious injuries since then, including to his femurs, collarbone, shoulders and knees. He wasn’t prepared for another long rehabilitation.

Littleton felt a different type of discomfort as he watched film a few days later in the St. John’s auditorium. After the screen displayed the play, he couldn’t stop replaying the sequence in his mind.

He watched a YouTube video of the play each day that week as the Cadets prepared for that weekend’s WCAC championship game. He contemplated how he could’ve approached Donaldson differently. He spoke with coaches about his guilt. They told Littleton the injury wasn’t his fault.

At the hospital, Donaldson limped on his third day and returned home, where he lay in a bed with a half-dozen pillows. He felt apathetic toward the schoolwork friends delivered.

A week later, Donaldson told his dad he would leave sports. He had commuted across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge each day to attend school and receive recruiting exposure, but he didn’t want to return to DeMatha. After he completed the fall semester, Donaldson attended Chesapeake College, where he later received a high school diploma and associate’s degree.

Spending most of his time in bed, Donaldson became enamored with movies and studied actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Reynolds and Matthew McConaughey. Donaldson told his dad he now wanted to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming an actor.

As he pursued new endeavors, Donaldson often viewed the YouTube video of the semifinal game. To this day, he cries every time he watches it.

‘There’s no hate in my heart’

In February 2020, Donaldson received his first acting gig to play a U.S. Marine in a series about the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings. The same month, Littleton committed to Maryland. When the coronavirus consumed the United States in March of that year, both lost some structure to their lives.

Scrolling through Instagram in November 2020, Littleton saw Donaldson had posted photos to acknowledge the day he was injured. Littleton believed Donaldson hated him, but failing to contain his regret, he messaged Donaldson.

“I think about that play all the time,” Littleton wrote. “I never meant for any of that to happen.”

“Bro, listen,” Donaldson responded. “There’s no hate in my heart for you.”

While Donaldson’s response provided relief, Littleton changed his playing style, learning when his aggression may not be worth the cost. He became quicker and more adept on outside running plays, and he scored his first collegiate touchdown in Maryland’s Pinstripe Bowl win last year.

Around the same time, Donaldson tried to improve his mood by visiting his brother Grant in Tampa while he acted in an upcoming film. Donaldson felt worthless seeing friends obtain football scholarship offers and commit to Division I programs.

One day, he was up until 3 a.m. sobbing. Donaldson looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and accepted his circumstances. “I’m depressed,” he admitted. “I need to do something about it.”

Donaldson has searched for an activity that’ll provide the excitement and fulfillment of football. The 19-year-old has dabbled in acting, modeling, videography and photography, dancing, coaching (both football and taekwondo), insurance sales and car washing.

“Sports was a huge part of my heart,” Donaldson said. “And now it’s a void.”

In the past eight months, Littleton has moved past thoughts he isn’t fit for football by jump-roping in his free time and cutting his meals, resulting in losing 60 pounds. Littleton often views a tattoo on his right arm — a clock with hands that display the time 9:21 — to remember his meaning. It’s in honor of the Sept. 21 birthday of his cousin, Reginald Lockard, who taught Littleton football before he was murdered in July 2008 in Southeast Washington.

In April, Littleton suffered a left ankle sprain in practice after tripping on the turf. As the 20-year-old lay on Maryland’s field, he thought he would miss the season. Then, he realized his pain couldn’t match what Donaldson endured.

“I told him that anytime you need anything, I’m a phone call away and vice versa,” Littleton said he messaged Donaldson. “We don’t talk every day, but we know we got each other.”

Belonging

In late June, Donaldson organized a youth football camp at Queen Anne’s County High in Centreville, Md., featuring his former coaches and teammates. As Donaldson posed for photos and reminisced with people from his former life, he felt an urge to return to sports. That has become a possibility in recent months.

After returning from Tampa, Donaldson began treatment to disperse his Lyme disease. He has gained energy and is exercising daily. His dream of playing for a Division I program endures.

At Maryland, meanwhile, Littleton has benefited from name, image and likeness to create and sell merchandise, including shirts that read “BABY BUS” on the back.

On the first carry of his redshirt freshman season earlier this month, Littleton rushed up the middle for a 21-yard gain in the Terps’ win over Buffalo. After he scored the first of his two touchdowns on the ensuing play, Littleton spread his arms and listened to the cheers in College Park as an offensive lineman lifted him.

Back in Centreville over the summer, Donaldson explained to his college-bound friends he was focusing on acting this fall. He encouraged camp participants while taping them with his Canon camera. After the two-hour clinic, about 50 children huddled near a painted Lion at midfield and raised an arm.

“Family on three,” his father yelled.

As the players counted, Donaldson stood alone a few feet from the group, raising his camera to capture the inside of the huddle.

After returning home — where Donaldson wrote “I AM A CHAMPION!!!” on his bedroom door and framed his jerseys — he powered on Beat Saber, a virtual reality dancing game.

“I’m going to have to kick my shoes off for this one,” Donaldson said to a few family and friends as he set the game on difficult mode and removed his white Vans. After succeeding in a nearly three-minute song, Donaldson removed the VR headset and sighed. “Dang, that’s a shoulder workout,” he said. “I’m out of breath.”

Donaldson sunk into the couch. As he and friends discussed the game, Donaldson grabbed a football and twirled it in his hands.

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