Tuesday, September 6, 2016

More than football

Just as Wofford was beginning to hit its stride in Thursday's season opener at Tennessee Tech, tragedy almost struck.

In the third quarter of a 7-7 game, starting quarterback Brad Butler and the Terriers were driving inside the TTU 10-yard line when a few shouts rang out from the visitor's sideline.

As the unknowing teams lined up for a second-down play, a Wofford trainer stepped tentatively on the field and sprinted toward the opposite bench for help at the first whistle. A crush of staff members surrounded a motionless body and yelled for others to back off.

Concerned players were able to kneel for only moments at a time before having to stagger backwards once again.

Terrier outside linebacker Michael Roach, a junior from Kenosha, Wis., had fallen to the ground from the bench, not breathing. The P.A. announcer called for emergency medical personnel as an anxious hush washed over Tucker Stadium.

Fans scattered across both sides of the bleachers stood at taut attention as the scene unfolded. A moment earlier, they had all been freely chatting and cheering, focused on their black and gold, or purple and yellow, worried about a game.

Now they were silent.

Some craned their necks in horror. Some paced up and down the stairwell. A little girl sobbed alongside her consoling, tear-eyed father.

Members of the medical team worked feverishly, pumping Roach's chest, administering CPR, doing whatever they could.

Meanwhile, a group of emergency staff, defibrillator in tow, slowly shuffled from an ambulance flanking the end zone's far side. "EMS, we need you immediately," the P.A. voice pleaded. Some fans temporarily broke up the antagonizing stillness to strongly urge them on. The crew hustled into a frantic jog, and upon reaching the sideline immediately started working on Roach.

"Clear!" the cry echoed. Everyone held their own breath.

Before they carted Roach off the field and into the ambulance, both teams met at midfield, unsure what news may come. Black jerseys blended with bright yellow helmets and the officials' stripes in a cluster of fervent prayer. The crowd, still soundless and shaking, continued to lift up their own appeals as a crisp northerly breeze whispered through the night.

After a few more aching minutes, the players left the impromptu huddle, stunned, and soon play continued. Butler quickly plunged in for a touchdown from 7 yards out. Wofford fans could hardly clap, viewing the play through dazed eyes.

Within the next few minutes, an announcement came over the speakers that Roach was indeed breathing and responsive in the ambulance. The stands continued to shake, though not with fear but thunderous applause and an emotional wave of relief.

Wofford won the game, 21-7, but that was far from the most important victory of the night.

Roach was diagnosed with a genetic heart disease that could have taken him at any moment, at any time in his life. Although it was a scary moment for all involved, he thankfully was in the presence of many medical workers when his heart stopped beating on the sideline Thursday night. On Friday, he underwent surgery to place an internal cardioverter defibrillator.

Hours later, those metal bleachers were long since emptied, left to gleam alone in the burning stadium lights. The scoreboard had been shut off, leaving the night's action to only live on in YouTube highlight reels, newspaper stories and fast-fading memories.

But Michael Roach was alive. And that's more than football.

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