Every Comeback Starts With a Setback

by James Stewart, Staff Writer

On a hot, muggy August morning, the Glen Rock High School Varsity football team grabbed the monstrous water coolers, the hefty med kit, and their brand new cleats, and trotted out to the field for another morning practice.

Smiles gleamed across the faces of all the players, seniors and juniors joked and hollered at the peaks of the stretching lines, some sophomores joined in, while the few freshmen that attended these practices kept silent clenching their teeth down nervously on their mouth guards not knowing what to expect, and just like that here he came.

Through the parking lot, across the pavement, and onto the turf came Coach Kurz and his golf cart. He hops off the cart, grabs his bucket hat, and sprints towards the players, at midfield blowing his whistle as loud as he possibly could. All of the players raced towards him and the panther head at midfield screaming.  Once they saw coach with a smile, that anyone could see for miles, they knew one thing…

It was every high schooler’s favorite time of the year… football season.

Every player on the practice field dreams of starting that first game while the entire school stands in the student section, screaming and cheering you on during the freezing September nights.

They dream of being able to run up to their friends and families following the game receiving loads of congratulations after beating their rivals, or winning the big playoff game.

In order to achieve all these dreams, every player who has ever played for Glen Rock knows they must practice as hard as they can, and must also be the best teammate they can be in order for the team to have a successful season.

Even though going hard in lifts, practices, and of course games helps reduce injuries, sometimes the one thing that athletes fear most sadly comes true, and this terrible incident almost happened to a standout sophmore for the Panthers this past season.

During the panther’s 2018 campaign, Nolan Clark was one of three freshmen that received the honor of playing varsity football. During his freshman season Clark played bits of offense and defensive, and was on a majority of the special teams units. 

Coming into his sophomore year Clark had set one main goal for himself, and that goal was to start on both offense and defense. In order to achieve this goal, Clark had to prove himself during lifts, practices, and scrimmages throughout the entirety of the Summer. 

In the early months of June and July it was very difficult for any player to truly stand out as there were no scrimmages. Therefore you are never competing against anyone outside of your school, and coaches do not quite know how their players will look on the field when they face an actual opponent.

Once the team moved into August, they kicked into high gear with scrimmages, and double practices.  Players began to find out whether they would start on either side of the ball.

Clark lined up against multiple juniors, and seniors who were fighting for the same spot on the starting lineup.   Nolan was not going to give in easily just because he was younger. 

Clark lined up against every single player that Coach Jim Kurz assigned him, he would then stare straight through the metal frame of his opponent’s helmet sending them a message that he won’t back down even if they are bigger, or older.

Kurz had told Clark that  he had the potential to start on both sides of the ball, but today was a day to prove his value against the older and more experienced members of the team.

Clark lined up at his defensive end position glaring at the quarterback calling his signals. He then heard the shrill noise of Coach’s whistle echo throughout the field, and the players were off. 

Feet chopped, pads clashed, and Clark was veering around the right side of the offensive line ready to get to reach the quarterback, but Clark had no idea that it would be his own body that would soon stop his blazing pace, and send him scrambling to the turf grabbing at his ankle.

The school’s athletic trainer Jaime Hricay told Clark that it is probably sprained and he may have to miss a portion of time, which may result in Clark not being able to play in the team’s season opener versus Waldwick-Midland Park.

Kurz was disappointed as he knew Clark had lots of potential coming into this season.  Kurz stated that; “he took strides in the offseason, and learned the game, and did everything he could to become a better player” which showed that he still believed that Nolan would overcome this minor setback.

 Clark was determined to come back from this setback, and his hopes were to start the first game of the year. When talking to Jaime Hricay, she mentioned; “Just knowing Nolan’s personality from working with him in the training room, I knew he would be able to make it back onto the field quickly”.

When talking to Clark’s parents, they also showed their sadness as their older son who also attended Glen Rock suffered injuries, but never missed a game in his four year career as a panther. They hoped the same for Nolan.

Clark had to go through what Coach Kurz likes to call “the process” in order to return to practice, and he did just that. Clark was ready to return to the field just days before the lights came on at Glen Rock for the first game of the year. 

The panthers ran onto the field for the first time in the 2019 season to a massive crowd, and Clark and his teammates were roaring, ready to start the game, but as soon as it started, it was over.

The panthers fell to Waldwick-Midland Park by a score of 34-0. As for Clark who had still been taping his ankle everyday, he barely came off the field that night. 

Clark would continue to battle his ankle injury throughout the entirety of the season, but Clark never gave in. Clark started all nine games for the panthers this season, barely left the field, and helped the panthers make the state playoffs, and finish the season with a 5-4 record.

After the termination of the season, Kurz talked about injuries when it relates to any sport and gave great motivation to any athlete around the world; “I think in general, that’s what athletics is all about. You know, teaching you how to deal with adversity and, how to be accountable following a plan and coming out on top in the end”.

Clark continued to tape his ankle everyday and just two weeks after his second varsity football season came to an end, the start of his second varsity season of wrestling was slowly approaching.

Head varsity Coach Corey FItzpatrick expressed his excitement for Nolan as he was going to be a star on the team this upcoming season, but once again a monster arose from the shadows, and sent Clark back to the sidelines.

It was in Clark’s first match of four during a weekend tournament, that Clark moved his hand one way, and his arm went the other. Although he had unknowingly injured himself, Clark went on to pin his opponent in 33 seconds, and finish third overall in the tournament, but at what cost.

“We didn’t know anything, we just thought it was just inflamed or whatever, and then we had Christmas parties and stuff during the last week in December. And again, we thought it was just swollen and hurt, but, then he went back to a wrestling practice on Monday, and struggled” said Nolan’s father, Kevin.

Nolan returned to a familiar setting Monday after practice, Hricay’s office. When Clark arrived, and she took a look at his hand she recommended he go to a doctor to go get X-rays.  It was then that Clark found out that he had broken his thumb. 

With hopes to potentially return to the mat at some point during the season, Clark had surgery on his thumb that Friday.

When speaking to Clark’s mother, Lynn, she mentioned some of the steps that Nolan has been taking in his rehab process; “ It’s right here in Glen Rock, and it is pretty funny. He only has to rehab his thumb, so he typically just grabs things, and picks him up to help regain his grip strength. Also, he would dip his hands in hot paraffin wax everyday which I thought was interesting”.

Clark’s grip strength of his right slowly began to rise back up, but was still much lower than that of his ‘weaker’ left hand.

Mrs. Clark once again mentioned how helpful the doctors were with getting Nolan back on the mat; “The doctor was very personable, he was a nice guy, but he was also super excited slash, impressed with how Nolan was very focused and determined to do everything he said, so that he can get back on the mat as soon as possible”.

Nolan’s doctor mentioned the fact that some kids around Nolan’s age wouldn’t listen, and would have given into this monster, and said that they will come back next year, but not Nolan.

When talking to FItzpatrick, he mentioned that being a wrestler, and having a “wrestler’s mentality”, may have played a role in the fact that Nolan was able to make a return to the mat much faster than other kids his age would have been able to.

He also mentioned, “It’s one versus one. It’s a lot of how much work you put into it, is what you get out of it. So I think when you have that kind of independence, you’re not relying on someone else or, 10 other people on the field, the way you train, the way you approach things is probably different, and the level of competitiveness on a weekly basis, make you have a different type of mentality when it comes to competing”.

Coach Kurz also mentioned that he loves wrestlers on his team, as he believes that this mentality helps shape the kids on his team, not only as athletes, but as men.

Although Clark did the heavy lifting, he did not make it back to the mat alone. He had a massive support group. Of course his parents, doctors, coaches, and Hricay were all there for him, but there was one person in particular that was by Nolan’s side throughout the whole recovery process.

Senior Owen Stephenson played alongside Nolan during football, and the two were once again teammates in the Winter, on the wrestling mat. Stephenson had been dealing with shoulder and elbow injuries that had kept him out for a large majority of the season.

When talking to Nolan about having a role model like Owen in the training room alongside him, he said; “He just made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my recovery process, and I had someone to talk to and tell what I was thinking. He also helped me get better, even though neither of us were actually on the mat.  It was good having him there because he’s just a good teammate, but also a good friend”.

Stephenson talked about what it was like to have his senior season derailed by injury; “It really just changes my attitude and makes me appreciate every single practice game more cuz I lost my wrestling career to it, and I think I will appreciate my lacrosse season this year much more than I have in the past”.

Stephenson also added the heartwarming fact that he and his younger brother Sean shared the practice field in football this past season, and will do so again this lacrosse season.

When talking to both Kurz, and Fitzpatrick they both agreed that Owen has left a huge impact on all his teammates and coaches as both athletes, and as people, but Owen feels like his job is not quite finished here at Glen Rock High School.

“I want younger guys like my brother and Nolan to be the best people they can be, on and off the field. I want them to be hard workers and good people, and try to help the kids younger and older than them if they can. And really just lay the foundation for Glen Rock sports in years to come”.

Clark would eventually return to the mat just two weeks before the regional matches. Although he missed a very large portion of the season, he managed to qualify for regionals.  He did so with the help of a teammate that was not even a member of the varsity roster.

Freshman Liam Van Dufflen was teammates with Clark during the football season, and Liam mentioned that Clark helped him learn the offense, and overall helped him improve as a player.

Even though Liam’s wrestling season was over, he felt the responsibility to be at every practice in order to help Nolan train for his upcoming regional matches.

When talking to Liam about his motivation for continuing to attend practices when he did not need to, he said; “Well, he was actually a good coach to me because I’m a first year wrestler, and he was a first year wrestler last year. He was in the same position last year, and he wanted me to be the best I could be, so he taught me a lot of moves because I came in very inexperienced. He taught me all new stuff, which I think helped improve me as a wrestler.” 

Another piece of information that I enjoyed hearing was when Nolan’s parents told me that not only did Liam attend practices, but he asked his mother to drive him to Nolan’s regional matches to cheer him on.

“I don’t know, he was always there for me, so I thought it is only right to be there for him too. And I especially enjoyed watching Nolan’s matches, because he’s a very athletic heavyweight, and he’s truly fun to watch. I also think it’s the right thing to do to support your teammates because like I said before, he’s been supporting me, and I am looking forward to being his teammate in both football and wrestling for the next two years.”

When I asked Clark about what made him be such a good friend and teammate to Liam, his response was; “I was just being myself really, I was just trying to be nice to him, encourage him and help him out with things. When he would lose a match, he would get very upset and I’d go to him and be like, dude, it’s fine, it happens to everybody,  and then I would try to help him with what he could do to get better. I try to teach him new moves and tell him little things that’ll help him out.”

Nolan went on to place fourth in his regional tournament, which ultimately ended his wrestling season. During his time out with his injury, he set goals for the next few years in both football, and wrestling.

“ For next wrestling season, I want to be able to make it to the state tournament, and I want to win a lot of matches. And then for football, I definitely have goals set. I want to start both ways again, and I want to do a lot better on defense than I did last year. I want to get a lot of pancakes on offense, and I hope for a good amount of sacks on defense. I also have the goal in mind, by the end of my senior year that I want to be beating the weightlifting records that are up on that board in the weight room downstairs”.

Another very interesting thing that Clark’s parents mentioned was that during this extended period of Nolan not being able to participate in sports, he really focused upon his school work, and he set a major goal for his future.

His goal is to go to college in hopes of becoming either a surgeon, or an orthopedist.

Another statement that Nolan said was; “I became fascinated with the idea that someone can open up your body and do something to it that will help you for the rest of your life. And I just thought that helping somebody and being able to do something of interest to me would be something that’s awesome.”

I then went and talked to Coach Kurz about the fact that most people look at any type of injury as a negative thing;

“You always try to make the best out of any situation, and when you have a positive attitude with anything, it’s going to make a negative situation seem better. I think Nolan took that approach, and he never really let it get him down. He fought through his ankle injury, and then we had other players who had to miss extended periods of time this year because there were injuries that you couldn’t play through. With injuries, you can play with some, but you can’t play with others. This is one of those injuries that he could play with as long as he had the right attitude which I think he did, and he turned a negative into a positive, and that’s important. You hear stories about people who realize that the process of going through physical therapy and everything like that, and they fall in love with that profession and then they become a doctor, they become a physical therapist as a result. That’s just that, you know, that’s an example of turning a negative into a positive.”

Lastly, when talking to Coach Fitzpatrick after the season, I asked him how he thought injuries like Owen and Nolan’s would stick with them throughout not only the rest of high school, but the rest of their lives.

“It’s hard but you only get four years and four years isn’t a long time. You know, I think kids when they’re freshmen, think I’ve got three years left. Then sophomore and they have two years left. In your junior year you go shoot and then you are a senior, that’s it, you know. It goes quick, so you’ve got to make the most of what you can without obviously doing any further damage. You know, it’ll catch up with you eventually, if you’re an athlete for most of your life, but it’s also life lessons and memories that not everyone has either”.

Link to podcast: https://anchor.fm/james-stewart57/episodes/Every-Comeback-Starts-With-a-Setback-ec5upl