By Emilio Zelaya, 17, Hamilton HS
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It was 2 p.m. on a hot July day in 2001 and the Hamilton High School football team was sweating through daily practice.

Emilio Zelaya at practice
Photo by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

"Down, Up, Down, Up, Down, Up. Don’t fall or we start all over. Come on, don’t give up. Hold it, Hold it!" Coach Mike Andrews yelled.

I couldn’t feel my arms; they just kept shaking. I wanted to give up. Then, praying for a water break, we heard coach’s whistle. I got up expecting our break.

"Bearcrawl to the fence and back," he said.
When he said that I wanted to run home. Just when I almost reached the end he said, "Go back and start all over, you guys aren’t pushing yourselves hard enough." After the bearcrawls he huddled us up and told us to run four laps around the track. Then we finally had our 10-minute break.

We did that strenuous workout four times every practice during my freshman and sophomore years. I thought it was too hard, and several times I wanted to quit.

Things changed though during practice on the first day of junior year.

A terrible thing happened at practice

The scrimmage between the offense and the defense was going well. The offensive line (I play left guard) was doing a good job of blocking. Then coach called the play "I-left-21-dive."

The ball was snapped and I drove the defender out. The running back followed right behind me. A first defender hit him, but he kept going. Then two linebackers tackled him and all three of them fell on my left leg.

I felt the worst pain I have ever experienced, but got up thinking it was just a bad sprain. Then I heard my teammates.


I looked down at my ankle and it was facing about 60 degrees to the left and I noticed the bone poking out of my black cleats.

"Get down!" one of my teammates yelled as he shoved my 225 pounds to the ground.

At first I was screaming in pain, but I suddenly stopped and thought to myself, "There goes the season."

An ambulance rushed me to the hospital and the pain began to intensify dramatically. After several hours of lying in the hospital bed it was finally time to reset my ankle.

First the doctors elevated it; then they pulled and turned. I heard a loud popping sound – like the sound when you open a jar for the first time – in my ankle and I felt everything go back into place.

The doctor put my ankle in a splint and referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, who told me I needed surgery. Now to some people surgery isn’t that big a deal but I was terrified to hear that I needed screws inserted into my ankle. At that point I was still praying for a miracle so that somehow I’d be able to play at least one game. When the doctor said I needed surgery, I immediately asked, "How long after the surgery will I have to wait until I walk?"

"Hopefully, six months," he answered.

I was like "hopefully?" When he said that, the last ounce of hope disappeared.

I was very frightened as I entered the operating room, but the surgery went well. I was out of school for two weeks. I spent most of the time laying in bed or taking trips to the doctor and to all the football games with my family, who helped me so much through all this. I still can’t put into words how it felt to be on the sidelines with crutches under each arm watching my friends play. It made me so sick that I threw up.

I felt sorry for myself and kept asking "Why me?"

I really missed football

There were nights when I’d dream I was playing football, but then I’d wake up and realize it was just a dream. I was really depressed. I stopped eating and quickly lost 40 pounds.

After one dream I just broke into tears. The scariest place was to be alone. Alone with my thoughts that taunted me.

After four months I finally had the screws removed. The night before the procedure I couldn’t sleep, and I began to reflect on the injury and I had an epiphany. I realized that this must have happened for some reason, even though I hadn’t figured out what that reason was yet.

The screws came out without any problems. When I left the hospital, the nurse wheeled me out and asked two orderlies to help me get in the car.

"No, thank you," I said. "I can do it by myself."

I got out of the wheelchair and it felt like I was walking for the first time. My ankle hurt like crazy but it was the beginning of something wonderful.

For rehabilitation I lifted weights every other day and stretched daily. I iced and heated my ankle after every exercise. I even got a gym membership for extra work. After about a month of both physical and mental rehab (every day was a fight with myself to prove I could do this) I was walking perfectly and beginning to jog.

I went to the doctor that same week and he couldn’t believe the improvement. When he told me that, I realized why this had happened. To become a better player and person, I needed to face some sort of adversity to truly appreciate the importance of work ethic and how much football meant to me.

Last summer my teammates and I went through months of hard work again. In the past I would have complained about the bearcrawls, sprints and workouts and thought about giving up. But this year, every time I felt like I quitting, I remembered feeling helpless when I was on crutches.

Although our record (0-10) doesn’t do justice to the amount of talent we had and how hard we worked as a team, I felt I accomplished a lot this season. I became a leader who encouraged some of the younger guys who slacked off. I remember one instance when one guy felt he could do the agility drill at his own pace. I ended up running behind him and physically pushing him to finish. I was always trying to motivate them just like some of my teammates had once done with me.

I took my position as a captain seriously and instilled a strong work ethic in the younger guys. I was always on time to practice and always listened attentively. When some of the players were complaining about the workout I yelled, "You guys don’t have to be here if you don’t want to."

Sometimes it was difficult giving it all I had, especially not having won a game, but I think that most of my teammates and I did a good job pushing the people who needed it. When everyone was tired while doing exercises, I yelled encouragement.

"Don’t fall. C’mon guys this ain’t #$%^! C’mon coach, is this all you’ve got?" I would say, even though inside I was tired, really tired.

I remember the exact words of Coach Andrews during our first game this year, "You’re doing it, baby, you’re playing football."

As he said that, I thought back to that moment when I was standing next to him on the sideline with crutches under each arm. It made me feel blessed to be playing again. Although my ankle bothered me a lot throughout the year I didn’t let that stop me from playing the whole season.

This season has been a learning experience and I remain thankful for being able to play this wonderful game of football. So now I have the answer to my question "Why me?"

The answer is, because I’m lucky.