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It’s easy to say that a football dynasty simply reloads when a key player is hurt and misses the remainder of a season.
But even in the most successful programs, major injuries take a human toll and a subtle one when it comes to results.
When Tumwater High School junior running back Dylan Paine injured his knee, untouched, during a 63-0 road rout of Rochester last September, the average South Sound football fan didn’t notice.
The Thunderbirds had Dylan Loftis, Hunter Baker, Zane Murphy, Mason Burbidge and Turner Allen to carry the ball. On the other hand, when all was said and done, Tumwater finished second in the 2A Evergreen Conference for the first time since 2009.
And football came to a frustrating halt for Paine, who had rushed for more than 1,700 yards as a sophomore, when he underwent surgery during October. The play and his recovery are both burned into his memory.
“I got the ball and our split end was kicking the corner out, so I was cutting up off his block. The whole field was pretty uneven, I stepped on a bad spot and my foot moved in and I heard a pop,” Paine recalled. “I thought it was dislocated and I could pop it back in and go back into the game.”
No such luck. After waiting two weeks for the results of an MRI, he got the bad news: a torn ACL. The Dylan and Dylan yard-devouring partnership he’d formed with Loftis dissolved in only the fifth week of the season.
“I was upset at first, but I still had my senior year ahead of me. It happened early enough in the year I had time to recover,” he said. “I got to work as soon as I was able.”
Tumwater coach Bill Beattie felt the blow as well.
“I was so impressed with the way other kids stepped in. Next man up. But, it doesn’t matter what program you are, if you lose a great player it’s going to affect you,” he said. On the other hand, he had a feeling Paine would be back.
“Dylan’s a relentless worker. He has some pretty lofty goals for himself. He loves T-Bird football. Having to stand there and watch after his surgery killed him. This spring and summer killed him because I restricted what he could do. He was just like a caged dog.”
Uncaged, Paine, who has attended a few college recruiting Junior Days and hopes to play at the next level, has a fresh appreciation for his sport.
“Don’t take football for granted. Don’t take practice for granted, don’t take workouts for granted,” he said. “Have fun with every moment. You don’t know when it could be your last.”
One moment that wasn’t much fun for the T-Birds a year ago was their 22-17 Pioneer Bowl loss to rival Black Hills that gave the Wolves a 2A EvCo title.
“Seeing the articles about Black Hills, seeing them storm out on the field and lift that trophy up was one of the hardest things I ever had to watch,” Paine said. “I’m sure it was the same for everyone else. We had Coach (Rick) McGrath in our ear all summer. We’d go out every day to the spot where we lost the game and say ‘it’s not going to happen again.’”
Beattie, who has been around long enough to compile a 220-101 career record at Olympia and Tumwater combined, doesn’t see it quite as dramatically.
“We can’t control what happened last year. It wasn’t a disappointing season, but it didn’t meet our T-Bird expectations,” he said. “We’re going to start the same way we do every year. It’s all about us. How do we get better?”
One place Tumwater is already plenty good is on the lines: 295-pound senior Vili Hafoka and fellow senior Austin Waring will anchor the offense while 305-pound junior Jacob Schuster, the 2A EvCo defensive player of the year in 2018, and versatile Ty Gilliland, also the T-Birds’ punter, are expected to wreak havoc.
“The strength of our team is our up-front on both sides of the ball,” Beattie said. “Our offensive and defensive lines both have some experience and a little bit of size. We’ve got some talent there, too. They are very hard working kids. That’s going to pave our way.”
Junior quarterback Cody Whalen also returns. On defense, Allen, who also plays defensive back, and senior linebacker Tyler Woods are expected to excel.
Beattie hopes to see his team develop a sharper mental grasp as the season unfolds.
“We’ve got to make sure kids understand the game. Today’s game is like fast break basketball on a 100-yard field. The other team is going to try to put its best guy into a one-on-one situation with you,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure kids know where to line up and what they need to do in different situations.