Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Wythe's Jordan Atwood sees injury as a coaching opportunity

Inactive? Oh, no. He was among the most active guys out there.

He kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, nerves his puppeteer. Every big defensive stop by George Wythe would cause Jordan Atwood to pump his fist -- the one that wasn't immobilized, anyway -- and consider jumping for joy, until he remembered that his right knee wouldn't appreciate that.

The heart and soul of this Maroons defense for much of his career, Atwood watched the final football game of his life from the same spot he'd watched the previous 11: the sidelines.

But if you ask the Maroons, he was just as instrumental to his team's 17-10 victory over Honaker in the VHSL Group A Division I title game as anybody on the field.

The 2011 Hogoheegee District defensive player of the year as a junior, Atwood tore his ACL in a Week 3 victory over Radford this year. He has since become a de facto coach, mentoring his replacements at linebacker.

On Saturday, he watched with pride as they shut down Honaker on Virginia prep football's biggest stage.

"Really, this is all I ever wanted," said Atwood, who took up football after moving to Wytheville from North Carolina in the fourth grade. "I'm happy for the team. It's what I've always dreamed of. We eat, sleep and breathe football. And even though I'm not playing, I'm still part of the team, and I help my linebackers the best I can."

The coaches even offered to get Atwood a headset for the game, but he declined.

"No thanks, Coach," he told them. "I'd probably break it."

He has been a little accident prone the past two seasons. He separated his shoulder last year against Radford (and aggravated it celebrating on the sideline last week -- that's why his right arm was in a sling Saturday) but he'd played through that en route to the district's highest defensive honor.

He would have played through it again had the knee injury not occurred.

"If it wasn't for my knee, my shoulder would still be coming out five times a game -- I'd throw it back in and keep on going," Atwood said. "I was going to have surgery at the end of this season."

Instead, the knee popped when he tried to make a tackle in September. Doctors told him his football career was over -- news he wasn't prepared to hear.

"I would relate it to when my grandpa died," Atwood said.

"It's heartbreaking. You work all your life. All you ever do is work out, you eat right, you run, just for football, and it's just all taken away.

"But that's where your faith comes in. You take it with a good attitude, you put a smile on your face and you help everybody else out."

So that's what he did. Atwood took backup linebackers Jwhieren Phillips and Ethan Deane under his wing, watching them in practices and games and providing pointers.

"He helped me through everything," Phillips said. "If I messed up, he was right there to tell me how to do it right the next time."

He was available to do that again Saturday, but the funny thing is the linebackers no longer needed much help. They had blossomed into consistent playmakers, thanks in large part to Atwood.

"He was always at the forefront of our leadership, but he took on even more of a leadership role after he got hurt," defensive coordinator Adam Hughes said. "He knew that we had people that weren't game-ready and didn't have game experience that were going to step in for him, and he did a great job just coaching them up, just telling them what to do, telling them what to look at. Each week they progressively got better with his help."

Described as an "unreal player" and a "heat-seeking missile" by Hughes, Atwood once harbored dreams of playing in college. He said he got some invitations as a walk-on before his injuries, but every school he talked to wanted film of his senior year.

"I've got 21/2 games," he said. "So I don't think they want it now."

But the video cameras were rolling Saturday afternoon as Atwood and his teammates posed in the end zone of Salem Stadium. Standing near the end of the top row, Atwood had his index finger in the air -- the one that wasn't immobilized -- a championship medal in his pocket and the world's biggest smile on his face.

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