Overcoming bad break; Decatur senior returns to field after scary injury

By Reece Waddell | Published Wednesday, November 29, 2017
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Headed to Pay Dirt

HEADED TO PAY DIRT – Decatur’s Dane Fitzgerald drags defenders to the end zone during the Eagles’ win over Andrews Friday in the 4A Division I area game. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Darting towards the sideline trying to make a move on a defender, Dane Fitzgerald stopped on a dime – something the fleet-footed receiver has been able to do his entire football career.

He juked once or twice before an Alvarado’s defensive lineman came crashing down on him. Falling to the ground, the Decatur senior landed awkwardly on the football. He could hear three or four loud pops as he hit the deck.

When he managed to get up, Fitzgerald’s right arm was dangling limp at his side.

“I was like ‘it’s either a broken collarbone or dislocated shoulder,'” Fitzgerald said. “I [thought] ‘that’s fine, I can finish the season with that.'”

As it turned out, his injury was far more severe.

When he got to the locker room and took his shoulder pads off, Fitzgerald said his neck was swollen to the point where he could not swallow and could barely breathe. He went straight to the hospital, and that’s where doctors told Fitzgerald he had broken his sternum in two places, along the front and back of the bone.

“They actually told me the only time they see this break is in a car accident when the steering column shoots up and hits someone in the chest,” Fitzgerald said. “[The doctor] said he’s never seen it in football.”

Decatur coach Mike Fuller said he’s only seen this kind of injury a handful of times, and never as bad as what Fitzgerald suffered.

“I’ve seen two cracked sternums in my career, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as [broken] all the way through as his was,” Fuller said. “It was just in the right spot. He basically broke his chest.”

The sternum, or breastbone, is a long, flat bone that forms the middle part of the chest. The sides of the sternum help connect the first seven pairs of ribs while the top supports the collarbones. Most common in auto accidents, fractures of the sternum can result in injuries to the heart and lungs.

After suffering the injury in the second week of the season, doctors originally gave Fitzgerald a 12-week timetable for recovery, meaning the senior had likely played his last game for the Eagles.

Fitzgerald sent his MRI to a specialist, who gave a different prognosis. With a new goal of returning to action in six weeks, Fitzgerald began conditioning a month after his injury.

Back in the Game

BACK IN THE GAME – Dane Fitzgerald escapes the grasp of an Andrews defender Friday Night. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

But that was not to be the case. A new MRI revealed not only was Fitzgerald’s sternum still broken, but he also had suffered a broken collarbone and ribs. Doctors said it would be at least another six weeks before Fitzgerald could resume football activities.

“That was pretty hard to hear,” Fitzgerald said.

Even though he was sidelined, Fitzgerald was determined to help the team any way he could. Dressed like a coach on Friday nights, Fitzgerald was either the signaler or the decoy, calling in plays during the game.

“As far as my injured players I’ve had over the years, he stayed plugged in and contributed more as an injured player than anyone I’ve had in my career,” Fuller said. “It was really awesome to see him do that.”

But Fitzgerald’s contributions did not stop on game day. Despite not being able to participate, Fitzgerald still showed up to practice to encourage his team and provide support – even if it meant getting up at the crack of dawn.

“Whenever we had early morning practices he would show up just to come watch,” said junior quarterback Wilson Hicks. “It just talks about what kind of person he is. We love having him.”

As the season drew to a close, Fitzgerald knew Decatur would have to win at least one playoff game for him to suit up one final time. The Eagles made it happen when they topped Abilene Wylie in the bi-district round.

“Once they beat [Wylie] I was like ‘if I can play next week I’m going to play,'” Fitzgerald said. “I miss this. I need to play. It’s my senior year.”

And play he did.

With Decatur’s season hanging in the balance against Andrews last Friday, Fitzgerald caught a slant over the middle of the field and carried several defenders with him over the goal line for the go-ahead score.

The catch, which proved to be the game-winner, lifted the Eagles into the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

“Whenever I saw him score that touchdown and he was running through those people, I have never been so pumped in my life,” said senior linebacker Harrison Haney. “It put a big smile on my face and on the rest of the team to see him come back and do what he loves.”

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