Down for the Count

Senior quarterback Hyer Thomas will not play another game in a St. Mark’s uniform after suffering a broken collarbone for the third time.

Senior captain Hyer Thomas sits on the bench, plagued by a broken collarbone for the third straight season.

On the last play of the first game of the season, senior quarterback Hyer Thomas is dragged to the turf by a Prestonwood defensive lineman.

It’s not even a real game.

It’s a scrimmage. The team’s final dress rehearsal before the regular season.

The tackler rolls off, but Thomas stays down, obviously hurt. He clutches his right arm.

He knows exactly what’s happened: broken collarbone.

•••

Tears stream down his face, but he’s not crying because of the pain. He’s crying because this is all too familiar. 

He’s crying because after last year, after he broke his other collarbone, after he had to watch much of his junior season go by with his arm in a sling, after he had a steel rod surgically inserted to support his left collarbone — after all that, he almost gave up football. 

But he didn’t give up, despite the fear of getting hurt again, and before the season even really started, his fears were realized. 

After last year’s injury, Thomas was torn as to whether he should come back to football, but after a long deliberation with his parents, he decided that he couldn’t give it up. 

“I think I was hesitant right after it happened, just because it was a shock,” Thomas said. “But as I got further away from the injury and further away from playing, I realized I just missed it so much.” 

Thomas also doesn’t regret coming back to football this year, even though he’s losing the majority of his senior season to another injury. 

Head Athletic Trainer Matt Hjertstedt said there is a long list of factors that may lead to one athlete suffering more injuries than another, including everything from age and experience to strength and physical development. In terms of strength, Hjertstedt added he has seen fewer hurt athletes since strength and conditioning coach Kevin Dilworth began his training regimen last year. 

“The rate of people who attended — who weren’t playing a sport but attended his strength program — and got injuries was dramatically less,” Hjertstedt said. “It’s like night and day.” 

Those injuries might only take a few days out of an athlete’s season, but Hjertstedt thinks even that short period can affect the player beyond that time period. 

“It’s not like they’re blowing out their ACL,” Hjerstedt said, “but there’s three or four days you may lose. Then they have to slowly get back and they’re not conditioned, so that’s a cycle I see.” 

Hjertstedt also believes the added stress of full school days and homework can lead to a spike in injuries for just about anyone. 

“I’m working with athletes from Aug. 1 until school starts,” he said. “They’re practicing four to five hours a day [during two-a-days], and I feel like injuries are relatively low. School starts, one week goes by, and the injury rates just bump up, big time. They’re practicing only two hours a day. One of the things I really believe is they’ve gone from just focusing on sports to school work, and they’re not sleeping at night. I believe it’s directly related to sleep.” 

Hjerstedt’s observation that the start of school leads to a spike in injuries makes sense. Dr. Erica Force, a sports psychologist at Scottish Rite Hospital, agrees stress is a major factor in terms of sports injuries and an athlete’s ability to recover. 

Force notes two main factors that can inhibit a player’s recovery: if the athlete is “at a pivotal point in their sports career or season” and if the athlete “must spend an extended time out of sports.” 

Thomas losing a significant part of his senior season falls into both of these categories, and he admits that he is more stressed about his recovery this year than he was during his junior year. Additionally, his dominant right arm is essentially useless while it heals, increasing the difficulty of everyday tasks, including school. 

“Last year I could write. I could do all that,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t very difficult. Now with my right arm literally pinned against my side it’s been pretty tough. I was stressed at the beginning, but all the teachers have been really nice and understanding.” 

Thomas added he is extremely grateful to teachers and his advisor for all they’ve done to help ease his transition to school. 

Hjertstedt said another facet of injury recovery is the mental side of recuperation. He believes athletics represent another way for students to decompress and another community where they are able to interact with friends. 

“You remove [athletes] from a social group, you remove them from something that decreases their stress and have something that they love taken away from them,” Hjerstedt said. “That’s going to be a stressor.” 

Hjertstedt feels an important part of keeping injured athletes mentally healthy is keeping them with their team so they don’t lose the community sports brings them. It’s critical they utilize good coping strategies to avoid a downward spiral and stay positive. 

Thomas agrees with Hjertstedt that, mentally, a return to normalcy has been key in each of his recoveries. 

“I remember right after I broke my collarbone this year I really just wanted to go to lunch with friends, or whatever it might be and just go to back to how it was before I broke my collarbone,” Thomas said. “That brought a familiar feeling, which is nice.” 

As the season drags on, Thomas just wants to stay an important part of the team, even if his participation is limited to being a mentor to the younger players. 

“I just want to mainly help [quarterback Canyon Kyle’s] confidence,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely hard to be very confident when you’re just learning the offense real quickly and playing a tough team. I’m really there for his moral support and for the team in general, trying to lead as much as I can.”

•••

Thomas stands on the sideline and watches as his teammates take the field for their home opener against Greenhill. 

On the one hand, it’s hard to watch — the guys he’s grown up playing with getting ready to kick off their senior season while he’s relegated to the sideline. 

But on the other hand, it’s moments like this that make it clear in Thomas’s mind that, if his collarbone heals in time, he’ll play football again. To him, the risk of getting hurt again pales in comparison to an opportunity to finish his football career positively. 

“I want to close the season, my football career, on a good note. It’s tough to end on an injury,” Thomas said. “I definitely want to take some snaps again, maybe throw another touchdown.”