LINCOLN — Lincoln sophomore Landon Waller spent almost his entire freshman season on the sidelines. He played, briefly, in a single game.
On Sept. 24, it was finally time to let Waller loose, and after all that waiting, there was no way he was stopping short of the end zone on his first carry.
"That first carry felt amazing, first play, first game back in about a year," Waller said. "First game back off an injury, I've been putting in all the work and stuff. It just felt great."
Waller's first attempt, a 5-yard scoring run in the first quarter, was just a taste of what was to come. He finished with 50 yards and three touchdowns on only nine carries. Lincoln's lead back, Chorion Kelly, racked up 214 yards and three scores of his own on 20 carries in Lincoln's 69-13 victory over Munford.
Neither looked like players just over 12 months removed from left ACL tears, but that's exactly what happened to both backs in the first two games of the 2020 season.
"They really did look ahead of the lot of people that I've seen," athletic trainer Lance McConnell
said. "Just because they worked really hard trying to get back. … They have both recovered really well, and I would say they are as close to 100 percent as they can be."
They certainly looked the part that night as the two backs combined to score 36 points. In the previous four games, Lincoln (3-3) only scored 51 total points.
"It is something that we will remember forever," Kelly said. "We blew out our rival."
It will also be a long time before either back forgets what it felt like to tear their ACLs last season.
"It was pretty bad," Waller said. "I felt it immediately, as soon as I got tackled, I knew this didn't feel. Something wasn't right."
Kelly's subconscious tried to tell him the same thing during Lincoln's 2020 opener, but the running back pushed those thoughts out of his mind.
"It was third down, third and like six," Kelly said. "We needed that first down real bad. I could have went down, but I was fighting for extra yards out there. I got the first down, I ended up falling bad on my knee. I heard it pop when I stood up.
"I was just telling myself that wasn't me, it was somebody else on the other team."
Despite suffering his injury a week earlier, Kelly ended up going into surgery within a day or two of Waller. The older back had held out hope that he could get a second opinion, one that provided Kelly with a path back to the field during the 2020 season.
Kelly's older sister Zana Wallace distinctly remembers gathering in the kitchen with the rest of the family while Lincoln coach Matt Zedaker tried to help Kelly come to grips with his situation.
"It had got kind of emotional," Wallace said. "And Chorion broke down to cry and cCoach Z, you can hear the cracking in his voice. ... Coach Z was talking about God also and saying that God got you, we got you, let's just go. Go ahead and talk to the doctors and get the surgery. That was, I feel like that may have been the lowest that I've seen him, just him crying, in the beginning, and everybody was really emotional that his season was over."
In the days and months that followed, Wallace and the rest of Kelly's family tried to point him back to God. At first, doubts plagued Kelly. Could he return to what he was, and equally as important, would he have enough time to put together some film that would help him earn a college scholarship?
He's already answered the first question. By all accounts, Kelly is both stronger and faster than he's ever been before in his life. The second question remains hanging over the senior, but Kelly has long since cast his personal doubts aside.
If anything, Kelly might even be happy that he suffered that injury.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason, and yeah, I feel like God put that obstacle there so I wouldn't relax," Kelly said. "I actually put my foot on the gas."
FOOT ON THE GAS
Fast is one way to describe the way Kelly and Waller approached the rehabilitation process.
Waller said it took a few weeks before he could get around without crutches, but he and Kelly recall jogging within six to eight weeks. Both guys, especially Kelly, were a little foggy on whether they were supposed to progress that quickly, medically speaking.
Family members such as Waller's stepfather, Wayne Chandler, definitely recall doing their part to hold back the recovering athletes.
"I think it was three or four weeks after the surgery, he said he feels like he can go out and run full speed," Chandler said. "I said 'really?'"
Chandler laughed at the suggestion. During the last year, he spent plenty of time and energy reminding his son to look at the big picture. Recoveryingwould takefrom such a significant injury takes time, but that was one hurdle both Waller and Kelly struggled to get past.
"The whole time I was going through rehab, in the back of my mind, I was thinking spring game, spring game," Kelly said. "But once I got to the spring game, they told me I was healthy, but I still couldn't play in the spring game. That hurt me."
In their minds, Kelly and Waller had suffered enough watching their teammates from the sidelines throughout the entire 2020 season. They wanted to do their part.
In May, Zedaker described both his impatient backs as "bulls in a China shop."
"I'm having to hold them back, be careful with them in the weight room," Zedaker said. "They want to do all these extra things. … it is tough to go through practice with no contact, and (to) know you can't play in that (spring) game."
Both were allowed to resume full activity during the summer and fall, with non-contact being their only restriction.
For Kelly, the return process was almost complete, but Waller's knee swelled after each practice. Eventually, it was determined he would need to undergo a second, minor operation to remove scar tissue.
"It was pretty tough because after that surgery, I had no clue how long I would be out again," Waller said. "Me not knowing how severe the surgery was, I didn't know what could go wrong again, if the scar tissue would just keep coming back, but I'm grateful that everything is fine and that my knee is 100 percent again."
Waller was originally slated to return on Sept. 17 against St. Clair County, but bad weather and a wet field gave Lincoln's staff pause. So Waller was held out once again, but perhaps that just made his breakout performance against Munford all the more significant.
"It is a pretty special moment," Waller said. "That is actually my first touchdown in my high school career. I will never forget that."