LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa – The District 3 Double-A semifinal game was in 48 hours.
It had rained the day before, so the practice field was slick and muddy.
And Lancaster Catholic’s football players, cruising along at 11-0 and heavy favorites to repeat as district champs, were going through a defensive drill.
“Bulls in the ring,” Nick Downey said. “One guy with the ball. One blocker. One tackler.”
And for the Crusaders, one untimely injury.
“I had the ball and I was running around,” Downey said. “I got tackled around my ankles and I put my left arm down to brace myself.”
When he got up out of the pile, Downey’s left arm looked like an S.
“I sort of shook it back into place,” he said. “But I pretty much knew it was broken right there.”
Sure was. Downey broke both bones in his left forearm: the ulna and the radius. But they were clean breaks, which was a good thing, all things considered.
Surgery followed, with doctors inserting two pins, which Downey said he’s going to leave in there for good.
He’s also got a pair of battle scars: one just above his left wrist and another just below his left elbow.
Oh what stories he’ll have about those scars for his grandkids someday.
Downey, who missed that district semifinal game 48 hours later, and the district championship game a week later, called it the most tumultuous week of his young life.
“I put myself in that drill,” he admitted, “so the whole thing was my fault, to be honest. The coaches were telling me to get out, but I didn’t like the way we were practicing, so I stayed in the drill.
“Man, did that ever come back to bite me.”
Rallying around Downey’s freak injury, Catholic crushed Boiling Springs 52-0 in the district semis behind backup QB Chris Peyton, who had the mother of all relief appearances, completing 11-of-15 passes for 192 yards and four touchdowns.
“Can’t say enough about what Chris did,” said Downey, who will be a preferred walk-on defensive back at Division I-AA William & Mary this fall. “He was incredible.”
But a week later, with Downey still on the sideline, the Crusaders could only watch in sheer horror when Wyomissing completed a miracle Hail Mary pass with 10 seconds to go and stunned Catholic 28-24, denying the Crusaders back-to-back titles.
“It was tough for things to end that way for Nick,” Catholic coach Bruce Harbach said.
Now fully recovered — he rejoined the basketball team at midseason and has been a key cog on the Crusaders’ baseball team, which is still alive in the district playoffs — Downey will play one final football game representing the purple and gold on Saturday, when he leads the North Team against the South Team in the sixth Lancaster-Lebanon League Tri-County All-Star Game.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Manheim Central.
“I’d love to redeem myself,” said Downey, who will be the starting quarterback for the North team. He might play defense too, depending on the situation.
He excelled at both spots last fall, completing 93-of-141 passes for 1,389 yards and 24 touchdowns on offense, and making 29 tackles and breaking up five passes from his defensive back spot.
Downey was a Second-Team Associated Press Double-A All-State selection at d-back, and was voted L-L League Section 3 defensive back of the year and outstanding offensive and defensive back of the year.
He was having a dream season — and a dream career, leading Catholic to a 30-1 record as the starting QB — before he jumped into bulls in the ring.
“Nick Downey plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played … period. No questions asked,” said Harbach, who will coach Downey one last time Saturday.
“You can replace him, but you can’t replace him.”
Translation: Another kid will play quarterback and defensive back for Catholic later this fall. But man, he has some gigantic shoes to fill.
“I savor everything now,” Downey said. “When it happened, I didn’t think I was done playing football for Lancaster Catholic yet, so that was really painful for me.
“But at the same time, it has forced me to go out every single day and give it everything I’ve got because you never know. … One bad break and it could be your last play of the year or the last play of your life.
“So I’m giving 110 percent on every single play and at every single practice, because you never know when it’s all going to be over.”
Downey’s football career at Catholic isn’t quite over.
There won’t be a district title on the line Saturday night, but you can bet he’ll do everything in his power to make sure his team wins, because that’s how Nick Downey will always be remembered at Catholic: as a winner.
By JEFFREY REINHART
Lancaster New Era