Mike Waldoch buckled his chin strap and trotted onto the practice field last week at Harlem High School. The Bulldogs' senior was ready to wreak havoc.
Instead, he tasted more pain.
On his first play of Tuesday's workout, a teammate landed on his ankle, the one that has hampered Waldoch all season.
Waldoch limped to the sidelines and told Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis, "I just need to change bodies."
That sentiment is understandable.
In addition to the bum ankle, he has high blood pressure. Waldoch takes a large dose of medication to solve that problem, but the drugs slow him down on the gridiron.
But Waldoch isn't about to complain. He realizes things could be worse. Much worse.
His thoughts drift back to 1993, when his father, an apparently healthy 37-year-old, died suddenly when an aneurysm burst in his brain.
"He was really close to his daddy," said Mike's mother, Bonnie Waldoch. "He took it really hard."
The son eventually discovered he shared more with his father than just his name.
While competing in a Harlem junior varsity football game in 2001, Mike made a play on special teams, and this collision was a doozy, even by his hard-nosed standards.
Harlem High School football player Mike Waldoch has recovered from an aneurysm in his head to play for the Bulldogs this season.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
He came home sporting a large knot on the right side of his head.
"Michael is tough, not the type of young man who would say, "Hey, I'm hurt," his mother said.
Sure enough, that night Mike said, "Momma, you don't want to look at this. I got hurt, but it's OK. Just a knot."
Bonnie wasn't so sure. She immediately took him to an emergency clinic, where doctors said it was just a sports injury, and that it would go away in a week or two.
But the knot didn't go away.
After visiting five different doctors, where the diagnoses ranged from "it's a bruise" to "it's a cyst," the truth was discovered: it was an aneurysm.
When he found out what the problem really was, Waldoch wrestled with the realization that history was being repeated - that he had an aneurysm, the same thing that claimed his father.
"It would come to you, and you'd think about that, but you wouldn't want it to be that," he said.
Bonnie Waldoch's reaction was, "No! Not my son!"
There was a happy ending this time, but the Waldochs may have narrowly averted another tragedy.
"The first doctor that told us it was an aneurysm said they could go ahead and do surgery, and it would be over in 15 minutes," Bonnie said.
They wisely sought a second opinion, and a neurologist confirmed the diagnosis. However, the aneurysm was worse than first suspected. It was larger and growing toward the brain.
"It's a good thing we didn't allow the first surgery, because the aneurysm could have burst and he could have bled to death," Bonnie said.
The surgery lasted several hours, and although the procedure went perfectly, removing the aneurysm was no simple task.
Doctors at Medical College of Georgia Hospital made an incision on Mike's head. The scalpel sliced from one ear, moved across the top of the scalp, and didn't stop until it reached the other ear.
"It was like Frankenstein," Bonnie said.
But, just like in Mary Shelley's novel, the result was life - and football may have been the source.
"There was no way of knowing the aneurysm was there," Bonnie said. "Getting hit in the head could have been a blessing. That might have saved his life."
It took 10 months for Waldoch's wound to heal, and he still has a clip in his head to hold things together.
He returned to the Harlem football squad as a junior last year, and played well at his middle-linebacker position.
"The way the doctors told me and Mike, had the aneurysm been inside the brain, he would have never played football again, But it was on the outside," Coach Lewis said. "We questioned the doctors extensively, just to make sure it was all right to play, and they said it was fine."
Still, Lewis didn't take any chances. This year he purchased a top-of-the-line Ridell helmet for Waldoch. The gear provides additional protection and helps prevent concussions.
Then the high blood pressure put Waldoch's football future in jeopardy - again.
"It's been a little tough," he said. "I went through summer camp and then I was told I couldn't play."
Subsequently, the doctors put Waldoch through rigorous testing, and gave him the go-ahead to return for his senior season.
"He was cleared 100 percent by the doctors, because I would never put him in a football game and risk him getting injured," Lewis said. "A kid's health is the top priority."
You don't have to tell that to Mike's mom, who remains apprehensive about the whole idea.
"I thought it was crazy," Bonnie said. "I told Michael I didn't want him to play, and the doctor said he could. I said, 'Thanks a lot."
Bonnie attends Harlem football games, but adds, "I try to wait till the end. I hate it, but he's 18."
And he knows what he wants.
"I've loved football ever since I can remember. I was determined to play," Mike said. "My mom didn't want me to, but I'm still out here."
He's going to be out there on the field this week, when Harlem takes on Washington County. The prep powerhouse from Sandersville will be heavily favored, but Waldoch isn't scared of the Golden Hawks.
The scar that zig-zags across the top of his head reminds him what fear really is.
That doesn't mean there won't be some second thoughts about lowering his helmet and delivering a hit this Friday night at Harlem.
"I can't say that," Waldoch admitted. "But I don't know if you should write that. If I hesitate, it would hurt the team."
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