Every time University Lab senior wide receiver Jake Wharton gets hit, he is unceremoniously reminded of what he’s been through the past year.
A pain shoots up through his shoulder with every tackle, but only on his left shoulder — the side that wasn’t surgically repaired last year after he tore not one, but both labrums in his shoulder.
Wharton sat out his junior season recovering from the surgery. He said it was the accumulation of wear and tear from doling out hits as a linebacker for two years with the Cubs.
But if the pain wasn’t enough to remind him of his year on the sidelines, having to sit on the bench while the defense — his defense — hits the gridiron is almost more than he can bare.
When Wharton returned to the team, he had to move to the offense in the hopes of avoiding any further damage to his shoulders.
“I’m used to hitting, not getting hit,” Wharton said. “It’s been bad all year. From my perspective, defense is a lot more fun than offense.”
Wharton isn’t alone in his suffering, though, as teammate and fellow senior Jalon Baker had to climb out of the injury list this season after tearing his lateral meniscus and posterior cruciate ligament against Parkview Baptist in last season’s semifinal round of the playoffs.
Baker tweaked the injury after an awkward tackle while playing slot receiver before finally tearing the ligament for good when he switched to defensive back — his primary position — on the next series. He said all he remembers of the incident was crying from a combination of pain and knowing he had just given up a touchdown.
“When I turned, I could hear it snap,” Baker said. “I put it down, and it just gave out. I was on the ground, and I could hear the crowd screaming because they scored a touchdown. The whole time I thinking, ‘I just gave up a touchdown. I just let my team down.’
“I was crying, but not because my knee hurt. It was because my team needed me to play.”
But this season offers a chance at redemption for both Cubs.
Wharton is back on the field as a team captain and said he might even get a chance to play linebacker when U-High takes the field against St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs. He said he’s happy with where his play is at now, despite the pain in his shoulder.
Baker on the other hand, said his knee is completely healed, but he hasn’t forgotten what happened.
“Anytime a player gets hurt and you sit out, you’re hungry,” Baker said. “It’s a hunger you’ve never had before because you want to show everybody that you haven’t lost a step.”
Baker got his chance early in the season when quarterback Manny Miles went down with an ankle injury in Week 2. Baker had to step up.
The Cubs won all four games Baker played at quarterback, including a come-from-behind win against Teurlings Catholic in which he scored a rushing touchdown on his first drive. It was a defining moment for Baker as it proved to his teammates, and more importantly himself, that he was back for good.
“It showed I’m still Jalon and I can step in when the team needs me and make a big play,” Baker said. “That gave me a little confidence. Then we ended up winning that game and then Week 2, we won that game and then Week 3, we won that game.”
U-High coach Chad Mahaffey said his team is healthy going into Friday night’s game and the bye week helped heal up any bumps and bruises there might have been.
But for Baker and Wharton, the fear of going down once again, isn’t holding them back from reaching their full potential. In fact, it’s driving them forward.
“The injury makes you realize it could end at any moment,” Wharton said.