Count ’em up: Dale has played 7 QBs
Rash of injuries have hampered Knights under center this year
When the playoffs begin Friday night, Thomas Dale will put its starting quarterback on the field for the first offensive play.
Ejay Walker was the Knights’ starter in the preseason, but a wild outbreak of sprained ankles and broken bones resulted in seven players lining up at quarterback
throughout the year.
Walker, who suffered two sprained ankles this year, returned last week and hopes to bring some consistency to the sport’s most important position.
“I’ve never had a year like this one,” Thomas Dale coach Kevin Tucker said. “It was injury after injury. It was a weekly occurrence.”
Football has the highest rate of injury among high school sports, according to a study by the National High Schools Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System. The group estimates 460,000 injuries occur in games and practices each year.
In 2017, high school football injuries occurred at a rate of 4.36 injuries per 1,000 athleteexposures, where an athlete-exposure is defined as one athlete
playing in one game or practice where he’s at risk for injury.
Some injuries are preventable, said Dr. Douglas Cutter, the medical director for HCA Virginia Sports Medicine. Overuse injuries, like a strained quad muscle or a strained hamstring, can be prevented. A string of injuries on a team to the same muscle group might indicate a problem with the team’s strength and conditioning program.
But torn ACLs, fractured collarbones and sprained ankles — injuries that are the result of trauma — are often impossible to predict or limit.
“Those traumatic injuries are just bad luck,” he said. “You get hit a certain way, you fall a certain way, you make contact with a bigger person. It happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
(A poorly maintained field can be blamed for some traumatic injuries, Cutter noted. If there’s a hole or divot in the field, players can be more susceptible to leg injuries.)
Cutter was on the sideline for Thomas Dale’s game against L.C. Bird in August. On the opening kickoff, Thomas Dale linebacker Zach Jones tore his ACL, and quarterback Jasiah Williams later broke his fibula. Not only has Thomas Dale played seven quarterbacks, it has lost two starting defenders to season-ending injuries. Rick D’Abreu, a defensive end committed to James Madison, also injured his ankle and is sitting out the rest of the season.
The Knights aren’t alone — injuries are on the rise in high school football. Players are devoting more of their time than ever to the sport. They’re lifting more, getting bigger, running faster and hitting each other harder. While coaches say the level of play in the Richmond area has never been better, the increased dedication to the sport also caused an uptick in injuries.
In 2008, the rate of injury in high school football was 3.65 per 1,000 athlete exposures compared to the 4.36 of 2017.
“These high school kids are no longer high school kids,” Cutter said. “They’re not little guys. They’re harder, bigger and faster than ever before. They’re hitting really hard. This is not the same sport it was 10 years ago.”
It wasn’t until the 10th game of the season, Tucker said, that his team played a game injury free.
And it was all the way back in August, in a scrimmage against Highland Springs, when Walker suffered his first injury of the year. While being tackled low, he could feel his ankle stretch. At first, he thought he could play through it. Then he realized there was no other option than to rest his leg. He missed the first three games of the season.
Williams took his spot at quarterback but broke his fibula in the second game of the year against L.C. Bird. Jimmy Hayden became quarterback No. 3 that day. The next week, Hayden started, but the Knights experimented by playing star running back Chris Tyree as a wildcat QB. In three games, they had gone through four quarterbacks.
Walker returned for Week 4 against Matoaca and returned with a bang. He threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns, and Thomas Dale rallied to a 28-21 victory. But two weeks later, he was hurt again. While sprinting toward the sideline, trying to avoid a tackle, his foot — his other foot — got caught beneath him and rolled. This time the pain was higher up his calf.
“I didn’t picture this when I hiked the ball,” he said. “I didn’t picture hurting my ankle again.”
Walker was replaced by junior Courtenay Burrell, quarterback No. 5. The coaches decided not to return Hayden to quarterback, because he had been moved to linebacker, replacing the injured Zach Jones. The coaches didn’t want their starting quarterback also starting at linebacker.
But Burrell wasn’t immune to the injury bug, either. Against Hopewell in Week 8, he broke his collarbone. So in a pinch, the Knights went with DeAngelo Gray, quarterback No. 6, who also ran a wildcat formation. Gray scored four touchdowns, and Thomas Dale secured a 49-42 double-overtime victory over Hopewell.
The following week, the coaches called up Ethan Hamill from the junior varsity, the seventh quarterback of the year, to play against Granby. Then Walker returned a week later, Week 10, against Prince George. He threw for 140 yards and two touchdowns but was disappointed with the one interception he gave up.
Despite all the upheaval, Thomas Dale went 8-2 this year. The Knights have the benefit of a star running back on the roster, junior Chris Tyree, who helps carry the offensive load.
And while being hurt was frustrating and difficult for Walker, it was also educational. He said he learned more about scrambling by watching Williams, and he’s done his part to teach the other quarterbacks along the way.
“You get to coach them up a little,” he said.
Thomas Dale’s Ejay Walker was the team’s preseason starting quarterback, but he missed time because of two sprained ankles this year.
Thomas Dale’s Ejay Walker returned to action in Week 4 after recovering from his first sprained ankle. Two weeks later, Walker injured his other ankle and was out again.
Thomas Dale’s Chris Tyree has carried the offensive load this season. With a rash of injuries at QB, his rushing has been critical.