With area football players gearing up for the 2014 high school season, one athlete is looking forward to it a little more than most.
Less than a year after suffering life-threatening injuries during a game, Edinburgh’s Steven Bailey is back in action, having completed summer workouts in advance of the first official day of practice Aug. 4.
Although Bailey defied expectations and actually returned toward the end of last season — he participated in some practices and made a limited appearance in the final game — he needed to overcome some mental hurdles before he could fully throw himself into the fast-paced world of blocking, tackling and heavy collisions.
“I’m not really traumatized by it anymore. I was at first,” said Bailey, whose summer workouts included participating in full-contact drills. “Last year when I came back I (shied away from hits). But after the season, I was really ready for the season to begin again right then.
“I’m not backing away anymore.”
Not that anyone would blame him.
On Aug. 23, the Lancers played their season-opener at Manual. While returning a kickoff, Bailey was elevated by a swarm of tacklers and, with his legs still moving forward, absorbed crushing hits to his torso from multiple directions.
He walked to the sideline, thinking he had cracked or broken ribs, but collapsed on the bench just after halftime. He was driven to Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis by his parents, Harvey and Susan Bailey.
Upon arrival, doctors determined the teenager was suffering from internal bleeding due to a ruptured spleen, lacerated kidney and punctured lung. He had lost nearly a quart of blood and was flown by emergency helicopter to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis for treatment that would save his life.
Initially, Bailey thought his football career was over. At the very least, he was convinced his season was over.
But it wasn’t.
Before the season ended, he received medical clearance to return to action and played in what turned out to be Edinburgh’s final game, a 50-28 sectional loss to Lutheran.
Bailey played only a few snaps. Edinburgh coach Bill Unsworth erred on the side of caution.
“They wouldn’t let him get the ball on a kickoff,” Harvey Bailey said. “Lutheran kicked it short a few times, and coach yelled for Steven to let it go.”
During the offseason, Bailey has been practicing at wingback in the Lancers’ spread offense. He has no fear of contact and can’t wait for the Aug. 22 season-opener against visiting Manual.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I’m ready,” Bailey said. “I’m learning new plays and a new position, and I can’t wait to start again.”
Although Bailey isn’t concerned about suffering the same sort of rare injury, he is wearing a rib protector his father recently purchased. He wore a different rib protector at the end of last season but complained that it was too tight and made it difficult to breathe.
“I didn’t look at any price tags. All I did was check padding, and I bought the best one that had the thickest pad,” Harvey Bailey said. “It’s the one I thought would protect him the best.”
He added that the equipment may have been a little pricey but was worth the investment.
“The pads are way cheaper than the hospital bill,” he said.
Unsworth, who missed the first few games of last season recovering from neck surgery, said it is normal for players to build a psychological comfort zone when recovering from an injury.
“I think with any injury, whether it’s a knee injury or one as severe as Steven’s, there’s a mental thing to coming back,” Unsworth said. “The player will question, ‘Am I really OK?’ You never really know until you take a hit, but Steven is resilient. He’s gone through our team camp, and he’s kind of sore from the hits, but so are a lot of guys.
“He’s back to being the Steven we all know, always active and saying goofy things and just being a good kid.”
Unsworth, a longtime college before joining Edinburgh job five years ago, keeps a close eye on Bailey and continually assesses his fitness level.
“I tell him to do what he can do. If you feel need to take a break, take a break,” Unsworth said. “I ask him every day how he’s doing and tell him that if he’s sore to back off a little bit.”
Harvey and Susan Bailey are delighted to see their son back playing the sport that he loves.
“I’m ready for the excitement of Friday night football,” Susan Bailey said. “I enjoy watching the kids play sports and don’t worry about a serious injury, just because it was so rare.
“I know who had his back,” she said, pointing to the sky. “He had his back when he was hurt and through all his healing, and he still has it.”
“I’m mainly glad for him because he’s enjoying it,” his father said. “He’s really enjoying it. It’s all he’s talked about since last season ended. His kidney has healed up with scar tissue around it now.
“The doctor says it’s actually stronger than the other one now.”
Bailey, who said his teammates sometimes jokingly call him “Kidney,” explained that while he has normal concerns over the experience he went through, the confidence he has from his medical clearance and his love for the game drive him on.
“I’m still a little bit nervous but not don’t-want-to-play nervous,” he said. “It’s just scary to think about what happened, but I know it was one in a million.
“It won’t happen again, and I’m ready to go.”