VILONIA — Vilonia football has become an anatomy lesson.
It’s as much about X-rays and MRIs as X’s and O’s. The focus has shifted to knees and ankles and shoulders and legs. And more disconnections rather than connections.
The injury bug has reached epidemic proportions as an Eagle team, picked in preseason as a sleeper team in 5A-West, is gallantly limping and gritting and grinding through the season.
Five games into the season, the Eagles have lost four starters to injury. Three of them had surgeries two weeks ago. Vilonia, with spunk and a bit of rare good luck, pulled out a victory in their conference opener over Harrison with 22 players out, including 16 of its 19 seniors. Four seniors are still playing.
Many were back in action Friday night against Shiloh Christian but were wounded and bruised. The effort and heart were there. Physically, the Eagles were outmanned and wore down — a lineup too young, too inexperienced, too battered and too shallow. Several starters have no or limited practice time during the week.
Vilonia began the season with a good senior class but a very small junior class, which has had a biting effect. The Eagles have one of the best sophomore classes in recent history but the young pups have had to be thrown directly into the fire and have had to grow up on the fly. Many of the go-to players are on the sidelines cheering them on.
Eagle fans grimace at a stoppage of play. Way too much, radio broadcaster Jimmy Rodgers and his colleagues have said, “It appears another Eagle has been shaken up.” Instead of pads and helmets, the Vilonia locker room has been dotted with crutches, slings, braces and bandages.
The most notable injury has been to star running back Houston Cotton, who had the worst-case scenario knee dislocation against Wynne. And medical personnel haven’t even gotten to knee repair because of more serious issues due to collateral damage to the vascular system and nerves. Cotton had to undergo three surgeries in a week in Memphis as the medical professionals worked to save the leg, which meant removing some veins from the other leg and placing them in the injured leg, then letting the swelling subside and closing the incisions.
He was released from the hospital two weeks ago and his goal was to be on the Eagle sideline Friday.
However, he returned to the Memphis hospital last week for some proactive and precautionary treatment related to his skin grafts.
In the meantime, people in the community have set up fundraisers, including a drawing for a muzzle-loader for the regular-season finale against Greenbrier, to help defray medical expenses.
While Cotton is mending, coach Jim Stanley and his coaching staff are not making excuses but diligently working with the players they have, seniors to sophomores, to make the best of a season that has quickly acquired a sour taste.
While Cotton is mending, they are not making excuses but are trying to stitch a team together with a personnel situation that changes by the game.
It’s a real-time illustration that life doesn’t always develop as planned.
What began as a possible banner year has turned into a bandage season and a struggle to play again another day with pride.
The players are learning that the fight to avoid losing a game doesn’t compare to the battle to avoid losing a limb.
Healing will come. But we’re talking long term.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd)