HALLSVILLE, Mo. — Justin Connolly’s right leg dangles over a brown table, his cast a reminder of a dream on hold.
He’s sitting inside a storage shed. Coolers and unopened soda cases border the walls. A school bus buzzes by on a dirt road, its tires kicking up dust like smoke that lingers over a spent cigarette.
Before him, practice carries on. He can only watch. Tinted eyeglasses shield his face. The pop-pop of pads tickles his ears. He cranes his neck toward familiar sounds. They spill from a nearby field, a cauldron of potential for 50 players who sweat together as Hallsville Indians, as teammates, for the first time.
“Freshmen and sophomores, line up unless we told you to get out of here!”
Connolly, a freshman, should be out there. During an Aug. 11 practice, he broke his right tibia and fibula, ending his season before it began. Hallsville football moved on.
Lessons are all around here. Football remains somewhat of a curiosity. Before this fall, Hallsville had never fielded a team. An athletic-department expansion created the program, giving this town a slice of Americana that somehow never introduced itself before. At one time, about 90 boys showed interest. Some even had to be taught to put on pads.
Now, Connolly teaches his peers about adversity every day. He suffered the program’s first season-ending injury. He’ll be back next year. Until then, he supports the team from afar. His teammates still consider him one of their own. But the events of Aug. 11 changed his place in Hallsville’s season of firsts forever.
In his mind, the events of that day burn. They took him from the high of a Hallsville practice field to the low of a Columbia hospital bed. He recounts it all with a hint of reservation, recognizing that one afternoon is long enough to change the course of everything he had worked for, everything he had hoped to achieve this special season.
“I’m sad a little bit,” says Connolly, his eyes sneaking toward the field, his thoughts turning to that day, “I went through all those practices, and I didn’t get to play.”
Friday, Aug. 11, practice field, Hallsville High School
It’s two weeks until the season-opening jamboree at Versailles. Connolly prepares for the kickoff. He’s part of the scout team coverage unit, a position he holds in addition to his role on the offensive and defensive line. It’s about 11 a.m. Sweat glistens under his facemask like morning dew. His fingertips tighten. He’s ready.
It’s the second practice of the day. Things have gone well so far. This morning, the team pushed the sled around the field for the first time. And on this night, Connolly has plans to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd blast “Sweet Home Alabama” from the State Fair Grandstand in Sedalia. Only a few hours more, and he’ll be free.
Connolly is your typical small-town boy. Country carves a special kind of kid. Soft-spoken, polite, humble, all that. He moved from Sturgeon about a year ago. He liked the farmlands north of Columbia so much, when his mom, Elly Adkins-Connolly, asked him where he wanted to attend high school, Hallsville was the obvious choice. He had always admired the school district, dating back to his time in Sturgeon. He could not see himself anywhere else.
Now he is on this field, soaking in a moment he had anticipated since the players’ orientation meeting in July, when Hallsville football was just a fantasy. Now he is living that dream today, watching the ball float off the kicker’s foot and into the late-morning sky, hardly a cloud to be seen. It spirals over his shoulder, falling harmlessly into someone’s arms. He doesn’t know whose. It’s “go” time.
His instincts kick in. His breathing becomes labored, choppy. Movement becomes deliberate, slow. He just wants to hit someone, to make himself known. His legs pump. His chest tightens. His heart throbs.
Babumfff! Just … gotta … hit … someone.
The unexpected: The blocking scheme veers to the right … the world closes in … four or five guys streak low … it all happens too fast …
A sharp pain surges through Connolly’s right leg. A flash of light, then nothing. He collapses, his thin frame crashing with a thud. After a few moments, he tries to gather himself, to stand up and play on. Perhaps he only got the wind knocked out of him. No big deal, he figures.
This is a big deal.
“I really messed myself up,” he says, trying to climb to his feet, high on adrenaline.
“Stay down!” everyone screams. “Stay down!”
The coaching staff springs to life. “Make room on the field,” they say. Talk to director of operations George Rudisaile, too. Does anyone have a number for Connolly’s mom?
“At first, I didn’t know it was my brother,” says freshman Garrett Connolly, also part of the team. “I saw someone get hit, and I thought, ‘Man, it must suck to be that guy.’”
A few minutes later, an ambulance rumbles onto the field. Paramedics load Connolly into the back. Everyone stares. No one in a purple and white uniform has seen anything like this before. A body on a stretcher. A feeling of helplessness. Nothing like this.
“For the kids, it was an eye-opening experience,” assistant coach Josh Lancaster says. “It was their first experience with a major football injury. It was one of those freak things.”
Aug. 11, Boone Hospital Center, Columbia
An ambulance idles outside the emergency room. Adkins-Connolly stands near the drop-off point, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son’s thick brown hair. The back doors fly open, and paramedics pull Connolly out. They wheel him away. Adkins-Connolly follows, never far behind.
“Are you OK?” she says to him.
“I think so…” he replies, limply.
Within 10 minutes, specialists tend to Connolly in a room. X-rays suggest the high-impact event snapped his tibia in two places. His fibula broke, too. He’ll need surgery. He’ll be here for a while.
“It’s not an uncommon injury,” says Dr. Richard White, MD, University of Missouri assistant professor of orthopedic surgery. “If the tibia breaks, there’s a good chance the fibula will break, because both work together at the knee and ankle and are connected by a band of stiff ligaments. … It’s like breaking apart two sticks.”
Hours slither by. The sun has disappeared into the trees. Connolly lies in bed, his head bobbing up and down over a pillow, still woozy. His face is a little red. Several coaches and teammates stop by. Their visits encourage him.
Word comes that football will have to wait until next season. The message proves hollow, though. What seemed important on that field only hours ago pales in comparison now.
“It was tough just seeing him there,” Garrett Connolly says.
Connolly’s eyes squint beyond grain silos and hay bales and into the twilight. His mind wanders back to the way things were. Back to when he was out there, preparing for Hallsville’s season of firsts like everyone else, back to normal days.
The signs of progress keep him going. Each day, he grows more confident walking with crutches. Each day, it’s a little easier to slip behind those tiny desks before Spanish class. He still wears his No. 61 jersey on gamedays, stands on the sidelines during games. He has three years to make up for lost time. Soon, he’ll be back, living the dream again.
“For any player, it’s disappointing not to play,” Lancaster says. “You want that opportunity to be on the field. But he’s still a member of the team. He’s there every step of the way.”
Connolly has watched Hallsville football grow. That stings a bit, to think about what might have been. But he holds onto the memories. He keeps them close.
Those five-hour practices glow. The smell of country grass below his white K-Swiss shoes, too. He’ll never forget that Saturday when the school parking lot brimmed to capacity at 9 a.m. ... for team photos. Anticipation twinkled inside all.
“They’re about to practice special teams,” Connolly says, softly, his eyes brushing the field once more.
And with that, a season of firsts carries on.