SPRINGFIELD — They didn’t bury Lance Phillips on the practice field. He has arisen — with a league-leading amount of determination overcoming the bad knee that almost kept him down for good.
About five weeks after his senior season was issued a death sentence, there he was at practice Wednesday, Sept. 30. He was a football player again, ready to play the rest of this season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“Lance is Lazarus Man,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said. “He’s down and he’s dead, but wait a minute, he’s back up again.”
Phillips, a fifth-year senior defensive tackle from Wellston High School, tore the ACL less than two weeks before the season opener. He had already tore his right ACL twice, once as a freshman in 2005, an injury that cost him that season, and again last season, an injury he played through for the final part of the season.
This time, at least at first, there was no doubt what the injury meant.
“You’re done,” he was told. “You can’t play anymore.”
The doctors might as well have stabbed him in the heart with a yard marker.
“It hurt people to look at him,” senior fullback Dan McCormick said. “I hurt for him.”
McCormick meant that in a figurative sense, but he also deals with plenty of literal pain. He, too, tore his ACL in preseason practice. Wittenberg’s team surgeon, Dr. Tim Kremchek, told McCormick since it was his senior year, he could try to play on the bad knee.
That’s what McCormick has done, appearing in the last two games for the Tigers (3-0), who host Hiram at 1 p.m. today at Edwards-Maurer Field.
“The danger is you could hurt your leg further,” McCormick said. “You have to compensate with the other leg when you’re ACL’s gone.”
Phillips and McCormick would deal with about anything — pain, risks to their long-term health — to play this season.
The same goes for another senior, tight end Mat Guida. He also is trying to play with a torn ACL. He suffered the injury in the season opener at Olivet at the end of a 35-yard reception.
It was an especially tough situation for Guida, a graduate of Oldham County High School in LaGrange, Ky., because he missed the entire 2008 season with a torn labrum.
“I’m in the recovery process,” Guida said. “The plan is to probably sit this week, and I’ll take some reps against Earlham next week.”
All three players know they will not be the same players they were before the injuries.
“The big thing is accepting that the season may not be what you wanted it to be personally,” said McCormick, a graduate of Troy High School. “You’re not going to have the success you planned on, what you worked hard all offseason for.”
They each want to contribute in whatever way they can. For Phillips, when he’s not on the field, that might mean being a mentor to his replacement on the line, freshman Justin Bartlett.
“I’m just wrapping my mind around the fact that maybe I won’t be the guy on the goal line when it’s fourth-and-1,” Phillips said.
Phillips credited Fincham for inspiring him to try to play. “You can still help this football team,” Fincham told him.
So Phillips stopped sulking on the couch at his house and started working out again.
On Sept. 23, Phillips went to see Dr. Kremchek again. He knew McCormick and Guida had been given permission to try to play on their bad knees. He wanted the same chance.
“You kind of feel like a wuss when other people are doing it and you’re told you can’t,” Phillips said. “Maybe you could call me unintelligent for going against what the doctor says, but I’ve got one year of football for the rest of my life.”
“I think he saw McCormick and Guida running,” Fincham said, “and thought maybe I need to look at it again. Lance is a very determined guy. He’s as much of a football player as anyone I’ve ever been around. When he gets something in his mind he wants to do, it’s pretty hard to talk him out of it.”
After speaking his piece to Kremchek, Phillips got permission to play. He returned to practice Wednesday and plans to see some action today.
“This football team, I believe, has the potential to be the best team I’ve ever played on here,” Phillips said. “If I get hurt again, it’s, ‘Whatever, I don’t care,’ I’ve got to be honest with you.”
Of course, Phillips does care, and that’s why he’s out there again. After practice on Thursday, Phillips, McCormick and Guida gathered around together to talk about their injuries and why they’re playing through them.
“We hurt for each other,” Phillips said. “That’s the difference with this team compared to some of the teams we’ve had in the past. The phrase, ‘One heartbeat,’ is very much overused, but there aren’t very many cliques on this team. We’re one clique. We build each other up every day.”
Who: Hiram College (0-3, 0-1 North Coast Athletic Conference) at Wittenberg University (3-0, 1-0 NCAC)
When: 1 p.m. today, Sept. 26
Where: Edwards-Maurer Field in Springfield.
Series history: Wittenberg leads 10-0.
Last year: Wittenberg beat Hiram 44-7.
Last week: Wittenberg beat Ohio Wesleyan 20-0.
Coaches: Bob Wolfe (first season); Joe Fincham, Wittenberg (14th season, 117-29).
Hiram notes: The Terriers have lost 34-7 to Gallaudet, 48-10 to the University of Chicago and 62-24 to Kenyon.
Wittenberg notes: Aaron Huffman is the only starting quarterback in the NCAC without an interception. ... Zack Harris was one of the 13 kickers from around the nation in NCAA divisions II and III named to the Fred Mitchell Award Watch List in September. The award is named after a former Wittenberg kicker, and the winner will be announced in mid-December.