Column: After all the pain, the sweet stroke of a pen

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Wed. February 2, 2011 | Joey Knight | Email

Column: After all the pain, the sweet stroke of a pen

It was as if fate had determined the tingling sensation down his left side, the momentary inability to speak and the ambulance ride weren’t collectively calamitous enough for Jesuit High free safety Derrick Friga.

So it tossed in a grim prognosis, and a grimmer messenger, for good measure.

“When I was laying in my bed in (the emergency room),” Friga recalled of that night 18 months ago, “the doctor was actually a Tampa Catholic grad, and he said I’d never play football again.”

Anyone who has managed a whiff of the TC-Jesuit feud can understand why Friga was so bent on defying ol’ Doc Crusader. Wednesday morning, roughly a year and a half after his broken neck had people writing him off, Friga wrote back.

Brandishing his own ballpoint, he signed a national letter of intent with Colgate.

“You ask me if 18 months ago I would’ve thought this?” his mom, Sheryl Turner, asked rhetorically Wednesday. “No.”

Generally, national signing day never has endeared itself to those high on grit but short on glamour. It typically has little time for those who slip through the cracks, much less cracked vertebrae. It prefers those with 4.4 speed or a 400-pound bench press, or both.

But there was Friga, 175 pounds in a thunderstorm, signing alongside three football teammates. When he turned to his right, he saw quarterback Patton Chillura (Penn) and linebacker Anthony Harrell (Georgia Tech).

When he turned to his left, he saw 6-foot-7, 285-pound left tackle Arturo Uzdavinis (Tulane).

Two summers ago, he couldn’t turn his head at all.

It was the first day of preseason practice in full pads. Friga, lined up at safety in a routine tackling drill, had just shed a receiver’s block when he saw 215-pound fullback Mike Lamoureaux bearing down on him with a full helmet of steam.

“Friga went to go hit him at the thighs and he got tripped up,” said cornerback Bryce Walker, who was standing behind Friga during the drill. “After that, it was just no movement whatsoever.”

One of Friga’s next lucid memories is of his facemask being cut off by ER staffers at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He had fractured the C5 and C6 vertebrae, abruptly ending a junior season so essential for any player aspiring to attract collegiate interest.

Surgery wasn’t required, but for 12 weeks, he had to wear a neck brace non-stop. On Friday nights, it felt like a straitjacket.

“You sit there and you’re just dying to be out there,” he said. “Even practice, things you take for granted. I would’ve killed to be able to run sprints; I used to hate that.”

While sidelined, Friga lost about 10 pounds and most visible signs of muscle mass. Initially, he wasn’t permitted to run. He rehabbed daily, all while denying himself painkillers. Lifting was out, except for getting lifts home.

“He couldn’t drive …for like, six to eight weeks,” his mom said. “Imagine trying to take a teenager’s car away.”

When he finally was cleared to play, just before the Tigers’ lone playoff game of 2009, Friga’s parents wouldn’t permit it. Then, he finally encountered a positive break.

James Harrell was hired as Jesuit’s coach, bringing with him a fresh playbook and fresh slate for every Tiger.

“When Coach Harrell came in, that helped me out a lot because everyone was at square one,” he said. “So it wasn’t like I was a year behind the system.”

Predictably, Friga played every ensuing game as if it were his last. As a senior, he tallied 74 tackles, a team-high six picks and 10 pass deflections. In the regular-season finale against TC, it was as if he had been slathered in karma.

He had an interception and fumble recovery as the Tigers rallied for a 28-18 triumph.

“You would think he would be a little timid after an injury like that,” Walker said, “but he never stops.”

Credit the Frigas of the world for reminding us that national signing day isn’t always about the strong, the sleek, the speedy.

It also can be about the surreal. Like breaking your neck, then breaking out a pen.

“At the time, when I was told I’d never play again,” Friga said, “I never thought this would happen in a million years.”

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