NAVASOTA, Texas -- Throughout their magical run to the state championship game against Gilmer Friday the Navasota Rattlers have been blessed with dominating play and, equally important, very few injuries.
Navasota has only lost two starters to injury this season, and one of those starters made a huge impact on the team even without getting the chance to suit up.
Linebacker Will Imhoff made a name for himself as a junior, racking up 163 tackles, earning second-team AP All-State honors, and helping lead the Rattlers to the state quarterfinals.
He and 18 other Rattler seniors had big plans for 2012, but Imhoff's senior year, on the field anyway, came to a sudden end in the fourth game of the season against Lexington.
Imhoff broke two bones in his leg, and the Rattlers defensive leader was carted off the field.
Navasota wide receiver and defensive back Solomon McGinty said, “It was a heartbreaker, seeing a guy with that much heart, with that much desire in football to go down all you could do is break down and cry.”
Linebacker Jaylyin Minor added, “I felt pretty bad. That was the heart of our defense. He was our leader on the field and he just kept us going and kept us in line, but it hurt us.”
While his teammates were worried about him, Imhoff was worried about them. Navasota only led the 2A Eagles 7-6 at the time, and Will wanted his guys to step their game up.
“The biggest deal was I used the injury as a chance to tell the team to use that as an advantage. To play every down like it was their last,” Imhoff said.
At the hospital that night after Navasota went on to a 45-13 win, Imhoff's father Frank, who played on the Rattlers 1988 state runner-up squad, told head coach Lee Fedora the earliest Will might be able to play would be the state championship game. Frank challenged Fedora and his team to give Will one more chance to get back on the field.
Fedora had a hard time with that request. “I tell you, when he asked me that back, I guess it's been 14 weeks ago, and it was tough. I walked out of there but that has stuck in my gut every game, and especially in the playoffs. Before that Bellville game I prayed many times going, 'Please let this work out' because I want this for Will. I'd love to be able to stand in front of this team and say this is something his dad asked for a promise. We were able to do it.”
Wide receiver Demarcus Lee said, “You know we cried, we got it all out, but we knew when we went to the hospital his dad told us just one goal, get Will back. If we can get Will back we'll get to the state championship, and we did that.”
Since then Imhoff has been told he would not be able to play, but could suit up and run out with the team on December 21st. Despite not having a chance to play, he didn't miss a day of practice.
“The thing we did not lose was his leadership,” Fedora said. “I remember going and he had surgery on Sunday and the doctors told him you can be back at school on Wednesday. Where was he on Monday? He was at practice.”
“It was something I hadn't done since I was a sophomore on varsity and I didn't want to mess up my streak so I just kept coming,” Imhoff said. “Especially for moral support.”
So with 15 wins under their belts the Rattlers need one more to complete the perfect season, and they'll have a huge emotional lift seeing number 44 lead them onto the field Friday.
The leader of the Rattler offense, quarterback Kadarius Baker said, “It's very awesome. It might bring tears to a lot of fans eyes to see him running out. It might bring tears to our eyes too, but it's great to have him back. Just wish he could play, but running out with us is enough.”
Imhoff stated, “We know it's a once in a lifetime opportunity and especially being that it's my first game since my injury I get to come back and run out of the tunnel, it's going to be really special.”
The Rattlers and Gilmer meet for the 3A Division II state championship Friday at 4 p.m. at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.