By JAMIE BAKER
Perhaps the player most grateful to have the opportunity to play in the Division V state semifinal against Coldwater at 7 p.m. Saturday night at Lima Stadium is Liberty-Benton freshman Alec Rhodes.
Rhodes’ teammates are happy he’s been able to play for them, too.
That’s because he’s made a pair of game-saving plays that’s helped the Eagles score dramatic victories over Lima Central Catholic and Patrick Henry the past two weeks.
A 5-foot-11, 182-pound linebacker, Rhodes forced a fumble near the goal line the last two weeks that turned sure-fire touchdowns for Liberty-Benton’s opponents into touchbacks to allow the Eagles to move on in the postseason.
“When you consider that Alec is a freshman that’s just 14 years old and now he’s playing in the state semifinal football game, it’s amazing,” said Liberty-Benton coach Tim Nichols. “He had a huge game against LCC and he has made two huge plays for us in the playoffs. You don’t get that very often from a freshman. He’s one of those different kids.
“He’s humble and you don’t ever have to worry about him. He’s one of those kids that you love to coach.
“Alex is a good kid to root for.”
Rhodes’ journey to the state semifinals has been amazing considering he’s played just a handful of downs the past couple of years because of injuries.
“My seventh-grade year, I blew out my knee in the very first game that I played. I think I played about two minutes and I couldn’t play the rest of the year,” said Rhodes, who also missed much of his sixth-grade season with a broken hand. “My eighth-grade year, I blew it out again, so I couldn’t play that year either.
“I didn’t really debate whether or not I was going to play because I love it with a passion. But it was questionable whether I would play this year because if I hurt it again, I’d probably be done with sports forever.”
The two injuries to Rhodes’ left knee weren’t your garden variety bumps and bruises. Both required surgery.
The first surgery, his seventh-grade year, only required his knee to have some cartilage cleaned out. The second procedure was more invasive. The surgeon cut slits down both sides of his knee and attached a cadaver ligament to connect his patella to the rest of his knee to keep it from dislocating.
“After the second surgery, that’s when I started to question ‘Should I or shouldn’t I play football.’ I also love basketball. If you love to do something, you have to go out and try and play it no matter what,” Rhodes said.
“Sometimes I had to take it a little slow. There was a lot of work in the weight room to get my knee stronger to where it needs to be.
“I went out for football this season feeling pretty good and I ended up starting for Liberty-Benton and it’s been pretty cool. Realizing now that we are playing in the state semifinals and thinking I may not have even been able to play football this season has been crazy.”
But it wasn’t necessarily the physical tool that Nichols noticed first from Rhodes. It was some of the other things, like his willingness to stick around and watch and learn despite of the fact he was unable to help the team on field because of his injury.
“He’s a good athlete, he’s just a kid that’s been snake bit. He wasn’t really been able to play for three years but he went out and watched practice, he was always there during the whole season. He is one of those kids you can count on; you know he’s going to be there,” Nichols said.
“The part we were concerned about is that he hasn’t played for a couple of years and we wondered whether he could adjust to the speed of the game.
“We wanted to try him at linebacker and from day one he has done a tremendous job. He’s a smart kid, a 4.0 student, and he caught on to everything,” Nichols added.
Admittedly, it took Rhodes a few weeks at the start of the season to get up to speed. He credits his coaches for having helped with his transition this year.
“It was a huge eye-opener at the beginning of the season because the last time I played was in sixth grade. It was hard but fun,” Rhodes said. “I knew I had the size to play, and I think all of the hard work I put in after the injuries really helped prepare me.
“Everything slows down during the game if you are prepared, and our coaches have prepared us pretty well in the playoffs. We just can’t be content with what we accomplished already, because we want to keep this going for another couple of weeks.”
By JAMIE BAKER