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Wofford Football

The season of miracles

A play-by-play including life-and-death close calls, academic excellence and service before self.

When the Terriers football team pulled into campus at 12:30 a.m. after the heartbreaking, double-overtime loss during the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs against Youngstown State, several hundred Wofford students were waiting, cheering and welcoming the team back with an impromptu rendition of the alma mater.

“It put a lump in my throat,” says Mike Ayers, who just finished his 29th year as head coach. “That’s Wofford pulling for Wofford, and our guys were awestruck by the sight. This is a special place.”

That scene marked the end of the 2016 football season — a season that saw its share of misfortune and near misses — but a season that will go down in Wofford history as a season of miracles. 

Starting QB down

August 13, 2016
Final pre-season scrimmage

After a productive summer camp and pre-season, the team loses Evan Jacks ’16, the projected starting quarterback, to a torn ACL. 

Roach resuscitated on the field

September 1, 2016
Season opener vs. Tennessee Tech

“The players look fit and ready. They’re playing hard. We’re moving the ball offensively, and a guy grabs my arm and says, ‘Coach, Mike’s down.’ I get over to where he is on the sidelines, and they’re cutting his shirt off. They hit him with the defibrillator,” recalls Ayers. “If not for the people we had on the sidelines, there’s no telling what would have happened.”

Ayers is talking about linebacker Michael Roach’s collapse from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an undiagnosed heart disease that is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes in the United States. Typically only 5 percent of people survive the condition after they go into cardiac arrest.

“For me it felt like a normal day,” says Roach, a junior from Kenosha, Wisc. “Then we had a long 13-play drive. I was tired and probably should have come off the field, but I wanted to stay out there with my team.”

After the series Roach sat down beside a teammate. He felt lightheaded. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the ambulance, disoriented but ready to go back out on the field.

Linebacker John Patterson ’18, one of Roach’s best friends, watched as Wofford doctors and trainers were joined by a cardiologist watching the game who jumped the fence to offer his assistance. 

“I knew it was serious immediately,” says Patterson, who describes an almost complete silence in the stadium while Roach was down. Wofford fans said they could hear the doctors call “clear” before shocking Roach’s heart. “Both teams came together in the middle of the field, and they asked me to pray. I could barely talk, but I swallowed it and prayed.
‘Play for Roach’ was our theme for the rest of the game.”

Roach left Cookeville Regional Medical Center with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator and a determination to focus on helping his team in a different way.

“I can’t make a tackle, but I can be there as a motivator and help coach other players in my position. I’m also focusing extra effort on the academic side of things,” says Roach, who’s planning to go to law school and possibly start his own business. “Lots of others have the same condition I do. Maybe I can create a service or device that helps detects heart conditions at an early age.” 

Another QB down

September 24, 2016
Wofford vs. ETSU

Brad Butler ’17, who started the first four games of the season at quarterback, tears his ACL and is out for the year.

Patterson stinger turns into neck fracture

October 22, 2016
Wofford vs. The Citadel

In front of a Homecoming crowd, Patterson came up from a particularly satisfying tackle with what felt like a “stinger,” something every football player understands. It’s normally no big deal, but it hurts. 

“I got up and was tapping my helmet, which means I need to come out. I was trying to jog to the sidelines, but couldn’t jog straight,” says Patterson, a junior from Lilburn, Ga.

Because of the stinger running down his arm and a previous shoulder injury, the doctors first checked Patterson’s shoulder. Then Patterson felt a pain in his neck and continued to have trouble walking in a straight line. 

“They thought I had a concussion, so they took me to the hospital where I had a CT scan,” he says.

At the hospital, doctors discovered that Patterson fractured his C6 vertebrae. 

“I was sitting in the hospital with family and friends just waiting on the results of the scan when the nurses came in telling me to stop moving, put everything down. The doctor told me that the bone was a millimeter away from hitting a nerve. If that happened, I would have been paralyzed.”

Patterson underwent surgery the next day and spent several months in a brace.

“I’m still recovering, but things are going well, and doctors are optimistic that I’ll make a full recovery,” he says.

Watching Patterson carted off the field was a sobering reminder of Roach’s life-threatening condition. It took a toll.

“JP is a tremendous leader on the team, and it was really difficult for our guys to see him leave that way,” says Ayers. “After we lost that Homecoming match, not many people gave us a chance to be more than average, but this is a strong-minded team.”

It’s also a team filled with compassion. After Patterson’s injury, teammates carried his backpack to every class. Someone donated a recliner for Patterson to sleep in while he was in the brace, and teammates picked it up and delivered it to his room. They cheered him up in the hospital and helped reassure his mom.

“It was really cool to see how many people were there for me,” says Patterson. “The coaches, my teammates, my professors and classmates — they were all just happy I was OK.” 

Howerton donates bone marrow

October 29, 2016
Wofford vs. Mercer

David Howerton ’17 knew this probably would be his last game of the season. After four years of special teams work and a brief stint as one of this season’s legion of backup quarterbacks, Howerton was faced with a choice: finish out his senior season and enjoy a playoff run with his teammates or donate bone marrow to a 19-year-old woman with lymphoma who had run out of treatment options.

He chose to save a life.

“God had his hand in this whole season,” says Ayers, who explains that the team partnered with the “Get in the Game, Save a Life” initiative, part of the Be The Match program operated by the National Marrow Donor Program.

Howerton received a phone call in August that he was a possible match. Early in the season he underwent further testing.

“It worked out that I was a perfect match,” says Howerton, a native of Asheville, N.C. “The odds of being selected are less than 1 percent,” but not during the miracle season.

The day after the Mercer game, Howerton and his mother, Julie Lesesne ’81, flew to Washington, D.C. The following Monday morning at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, doctors drilled two holes into Howerton’s pelvic bone and extracted the bone marrow.

“David is such an unbelievably selfless guy,” says Ayers. “Last year he got the team’s unsung hero award. He makes us all better. We’re a closer team because of David.”

During the Mercer game, Roach and Patterson were watching from the box with the coaches. They both knew that Howerton was about to donate bone marrow, and from their experiences this season they knew how hard it would be for him to miss the on-the-field camaraderie and action.

“We were up there watching, and Howie blocks a punt then returns it for a touchdown. The coaches are working, so it’s usually pretty calm up there, but not then. We went wild. Everybody was jumping and going crazy,” remembers Roach. He started texting Howerton immediately, knowing he wouldn’t see it until he was back in the locker room after the game. The text read: “It was lit. So proud of you dawg. All the coaches were going bonkers yelling HOWIEEEEE.”

“It was the greatest text ever,” says Howerton, who has avoided the spotlight for his sacrifice. “I didn’t do much. I just hope she survives. She was making her last stand.” 

Another QB down

December 3, 2016
Wofford vs. The Citadel (playoffs)

With Jacks and Butler on the sidelines, Brandon Goodson ’18 moved into the starting role for nine games. During The Citadel playoff rematch, he sprained his ankle. With Howerton out for several weeks after his bone marrow donation, true freshman Joe Newman ’20 stepped in to lead the Terriers to a win in Charleston.  

Double-overtime loss ends season but not dreams

December 10, 2016
Wofford vs. Youngstown State
(FCS quarterfinals)

By the end of the season, Ayers says the team’s mantra was: “Man down. Man up. MAN UP!”

“The guys really took that to heart,” he says, “It’s probably the most satisfying year I’ve ever coached. It wasn’t about wins or being in the playoffs, but the way this group of young men went about business. The team rallied. The coaches rallied. The fans rallied. Our students rallied.”

The team’s 15 returning starters and others vying for key positions began spring practice on Feb. 15. Those planning to graduate in May, however, already had run their last lap and were conditioning themselves for a new challenge. Three of these men — Butler, Nick Colvin ’17 and David Marvin ’17 — spent the past summer together in Spartanburg, training for their final season, studying for their medical and dental school admission exams and supporting each other. They were joined by a fourth — Hunter Windham ’17 — who already had taken the LSAT for admission into law school. 

When the test scores came back, all four had scored in the 92nd percentile or better (two scoring in the 99th percentile), which meant the next steps in their futures were secure.

“They made their own miracles,” says Ayers. “We have bright kids who are committed to learning in the classroom and on the field. Their success also shows the excellence of the college’s preprofessional programs.”

Butler, a biology major from Rome, Ga., wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he came to Wofford, but he knew Wofford would not be the end. “When I stepped on campus, I told myself, ‘This is my resume, I can’t slack.’” Now he’ll be in medical school at the University of Georgia in the fall.

Marvin, a biology and chemistry major from Charlotte, N.C., has decided to use his fifth year of eligibility to kick for the University of Georgia, where he will enroll in a master’s program. The extra degree will make him even more competitive for medical school admissions.

Marvin is quick to give credit to mentors on the team, such as Taylor Bragg ’16 and Brody Hingst ’15, who are now both in medical school. “They gave us tips on how to manage our time and study. Everyone learns what’s best for them, but it comes down to having a desire to succeed.”

Colvin, a biology major with a business minor from Statham, Ga., who will be attending dental school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, says the group treated their summer academic and athletic training like a job. For him, the good test scores are a validation that the hard work paid off. 

“I remember studying the morning before a game, feeling like I should really bring my work so I could study some more during the half. Then there were all the times friends were out having fun, and I was in Milliken studying,” says Colvin. “Knowing that it was all worth it feels good.”

Four members of the team made Phi Beta Kappa: Colvin, Marvin, Anton Wahrby ’17 and Windham. Colvin was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District Team, and Marvin and Wahrby have been selected as FCS ADA Academic All-Stars.

“We’ve got All-American, All-Conference and All-Academic team members. We’ve got guys like Dequan Miller ’17, a starting offensive guard, who misses the first half of a game to retake the LSAT so he could qualify for a scholarship to go to law school.” (He did, by the way.) “Those are the kind of guys who permeate the team,” says Ayers.

The Wofford football program has ranked among the top 10 percent of FCS teams in the Academic Performance Review in eight of the past 10 seasons. The Terriers lead the SoCon with 146 Academic All-SoCon selections since the program started in 2003; 10 earned the recognition this season: Colvin, Steven Cornellier ’16, Jared Jacon-Duffy ’17, Marvin, T.J. Novotny ’17, Patterson, Malik Rivera ’18, Brian Sanders ’16, Wahrby and Windham.

“It was 100 percent a season of miracles on every front,” says Ayers. “Wofford is a special place. It’s about the people who walk the halls — from the president to the people cutting the grass and cooking the meals for the team. We want student-athletes to come here for a world-class education, play some football and have some success doing it, then go out and be productive members of society.”

What do you think: miracle season or exactly what you’d expect from a football program at Wofford College?

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89