Hayden Holloway stood on the sidelines at Peve Stadium Friday night feeling like an out-of-control roller coaster was running through his stomach.
"I just wanted to get in there, get my first hit, and see how it felt," said the Blue Springs High School middle linebacker, who tore his ACL in the first game of the season. "All I wanted – all I ever wanted – was the chance to get back and play the game I love."
He didn't just play in Blue Springs' 49-21 Class 6 victory over Fort Zumwalt West, he dominated, making six tackles and being a part of a group of Wildcats who forced an early fumble.
"The wait was long, but worth it," Holloway said as he was greeted by his teammates and mother, Julie Prewett, after the game. "It felt so good to be back with my brothers – so good."
How long had Holloway dreamed of playing football at Blue Springs High School?
"My whole life, as long as I can remember," Holloway said. "I dedicated the season to my dad, who helped me discover football and who was the reason I loved it so much. And then, well ..."
His words drifted off, as he found it impossible to talk about a life-changing event that 16-year-olds should never have to experience.
It came in the second game of the 2016 season.
"We were playing Lee's Summit West," Holloway said. "I was out there with my brothers, doing what I had dreamed about forever. And then, I got hit. And I knew it was bad."
It wasn't just bad, it was severe.
He had torn his ACL and meniscus and would miss the entire season.
"The only way I got through it was my family – my real family and my football family, my brothers on the field," Holloway explained. "If you've never been through rehab, you have no idea what it's like. It's so hard, but I wanted to come back better than ever, so I started to grind. I worked so hard and I came back bigger, better, stronger than ever."
Then, Strike 2 – a life-changing tragedy that might destroy a lesser young man.
His father, Chris Holloway, the man who had planted that football seed so many years ago and had watched it grow and develop within his son, contracted a virus.
"My dad was living in Tennessee, and we talked all the time, at least once a day, and he got sick – really, really sick with a rare strain of influenza," said Holloway, who lives in Blue Springs with his mother and stepfather. "It just got worse and worse and he got a brain aneurysm and was gone. My dad was gone, he died, and I didn't know what to do or say.
"That's when your friends come through for you. My brothers on the football team were there for me. They helped me get through the toughest thing I'd ever experienced. Losing your dad is a lot tougher than coming back from ACL surgery. My dad meant everything to me, and he was gone."
But his teammates were there in force.
"When I think of Hayden," said offensive/defensive lineman Daniel Parker, who has verbally committed to play football at the University of Missouri, "I think of three things – dedication, determination and dependability."
That comment caught Holloway off guard.
"Daniel said that?" Holloway asked. "I didn't know he felt that way.
"I had planned on dedicating this season to my brothers on the team who were always there for me after I missed out on last season. Now, it's dedicated to them and my dad."
And the season that was dedicated to his father and his teammates could have become Strike 3, but Holloway would not let that happen.
"In our first game against Lee's Summit – it must have something to do with those Lee's Summit Schools – I planted my foot and felt my knee give away," Holloway explained. "There was a pop, and I knew something was wrong, really wrong. I got it taped, hoping beyond hope it wasn't as bad as my junior year, and then I get it examined and find out my meniscus was retorn. I was crushed. Devastated. I didn't know what to think, what to do.
"So once again, I ground it out, worked hard, rehabbed and tonight makes all the hard work pay off."
Just before he left the field, he hugged his mom Julie on the sidelines.
"I am so proud of him," his mother said. "I am proud of him as my son and as a player. I don't know how he went out and did what he did tonight. I was so nervous, I felt like I was going to throw up in the stands. He's a special kid."
The many fans who hugged Holloway, patted him on the back and posed for photos as he left the field would readily agree.
"I'll never forget tonight as long as I live," he said, grinning from ear to ear. "There are a lot of special people in my life, and this game is for all of them."