Friday night under the lights can produce a world of memories – some exhilarating, some painful.
The gridiron can create an all-too realistic realm of pressure; like the pressure that comes from simple survival, the pressure of returning from a life-altering injury, and the pressure of going out and making the most of a senior year where you're standing center stage with a glaring spotlight in your eyes.
Ezra Vaoifi was marked for stardom in a star-filled Fort Osage football lineup when he was a freshman. He never expected to experience the often agonizing pressure that can dim those bright Friday night lights.
“Do you remember that Blue Springs game when (quarterback Steven) McBee got hurt three years ago?” asked Fort Osage coach Ryan Schartz, whose Indians travel to Blue Springs South's Larry Stewart Memorial Stadium for a 7 p.m. game Friday.
“Steven went on and did some great things for this program, but back then, he was just a sophomore, and he gets hurt. We send this skinny freshman in to play quarterback, and he showed us so much guts. That's the night we knew Ezra Vaoifi was going to be special.”
That night, Vaoifi simply wanted to survive against a team that would go on and play in the Class 6 state championship game.
“I was 14, and I looked across the line and saw 18-year-olds who were twice as big as me,” Vaoifi said, shaking his head and grinning at the memory. “I didn't know what to do, really, but I was going to show Coach Schartz and my teammates that I wasn't afraid. I wanted to show them I had some guts, and it was an honor and a challenge to play Blue Springs – and I made it out alive.”
The next year, sophomore Ezra Vaoifi was expected to be the man in the Indians’ backfield when he tore the ACL in his left knee.
“One play and my season – and maybe my career – is over,” Vaoifi said. “The pressure of playing at quarterback against Blue Springs as a 14-year-old was just surviving. The pressure of coming back from a torn ACL was something I'd never experienced. I wasn't supposed to be on the sidelines on crutches; I was supposed to be carrying the ball, helping the Indians win on Friday night.”
For two agonizing years, Vaoifi rehabbed that knee. No one knows how many trips he made to see his therapist. No one can count how many sprints he ran, stairs he climbed or prayers he said.
“I was coming back,” Vaoifi said. “Would I be as good as I was before? That was the question. That was the pressure.”
It wasn't until the Class 5 state championship game last season when Vaoifi got his answer.
“We lost that championship game,” Vaoifi said, “but for the first time in two years, I felt like I could run without thinking about my knee. After that game, I got rid of my brace and made a commitment to having the best senior year I could possibly have. I had two years to make up for, one of the best offensive lines in the history of our school and a great coaching staff to get us ready for every play, every game.”
Schartz was thrilled to see Vaoifi's dedication in the offseason.
“He's battle-tested, and he's been through a lot,” Schartz said. “He had a great offseason. I've never seen a kid have a better offseason. He lost some weight and looks like the Ezra we thought we'd have when he was a sophomore.”
And with sophomore Skylar Thompson replacing the veteran McBee, Vaoifi and his line want to do everything possible to take the pressure off their 16-year-old signal caller.
In an opening game that might take a while to be duplicated by an Indian back, Vaoifi carried the ball 30 times for 313 yards and two key fourth-quarter touchdowns last Friday in a season-opening home win over Park Hill South.
“Ezra and the line made my life pretty easy that night,” Thompson said, sporting an ear-to-ear grin. “They protected me. I gave Ezra the ball, and he did they did the rest.”
After the game, the linemen – who call themselves the “Big Smarties” for sporting a combined 3.3 GPA – were eating together when they overheard someone say Vaoifi finished with 313 yards.
“It was so awesome that Ezra was able to read our blocks and bust through the holes and run for 313 yards,” right tackle Logan Stephens said. “It's such a good feeling when the line and the backs are on the same page.”
Left tackle Dalton Miller added, “The only way we get any recognition is if Ezra or Skylar or the other backs do something special. We make them look good, and they make us look good – pretty cool.”
Center Griffin Bledsoe believes the opening salvo fired by Vaoifi and the Indians could continue throughout the season.
“We don't have any idea how many yards he has during a game,” Griffin said. “All we care about is giving him the holes to run through and scoring points. We all came together really well Friday night, and we hope to do it again this Friday. We're going to work hard to make sure that happens.”
Right guard Bryce Palmer nods in agreement and adds, “Coach Schartz talks about assignments, alignment and execution. We focus on the now, and the now is getting ready for a great Blue Springs South team. We know they're going to give us everything they have, and we have to work hard this week to make sure we execute like we did last Friday against Park Hill South.”
When left guard Joey Neidel joins the conversation, he adds a touch of levity.
“We don't really get graded – the defensive guys do – but when Ezra runs for 100 yards, we get a tray of brownies,” Neidel said. “So we have three trays of brownies coming our way. “We love the brownies, but we love winning even more. We're focused and detail-oriented. And it's so much fun to watch him run. He brushed right past me and ran down the line and got past these guys who were trying to tackle him, and I'm like, 'Is this Madden Football?' No, it's just Ezra.”
Every day before practice, Vaoifi looks at the nasty scar on his left knee. It serves as a reminder that the pressure is always going to be there.
“The scar reminds me of my journey, how far I've come to get to where I am today,” Vaoifi said. “I don't think about getting hurt.
“I think about the guys who block for me. They opened some holes you could have driven a semi through.
“And I think about our next practice, the next play, the next game, how much confidence I have in my teammates and how much I love Fort Osage High School.”
Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC