TAMPA – Plant senior quarterback Phillip Ely had been injured before. He’s gone through many a game week not knowing if he would be able to play.
But this week, as the Panthers prepare for their Class 5A state semifinal against Lakeland, it seems different.
On a chilly evening this week, Ely’s shoulders were raised tight around his neck, his hands deep inside his sweatshirt’s pockets. His father puts his coat over his shoulders for another layer of warmth as he takes slow deliberate steps off the practice field.
“I feel like a 90-year-old man,” Ely said before making his way to another 90-minute physical therapy session to help his ailing lower back.
But for Ely, who has won two state title rings at Plant, the pain is more than physical.
He is no longer a sophomore, when a wide-eyed Ely relieved an injured Aaron Murray in Week 6 and set the table for Murray’s state title game return with nine straight wins. And it’s not last year, when Ely first overcame a back injury in his first season as a starter to lead the Panthers to a second-straight championship.
Ely will be a game-time decision Friday. If he can’t play, senior backup Nick Sanders will make his first postseason start.
Win or lose, Ely – an Alabama commitment -- has no more than two games left in his high school career.
“I think about it all the time,” Ely said. “I’m sitting on the sideline during practice thinking that should be me running the offense and stuff. But I trust Nick, and I definitely think he’s just as competitive as I am and I think he’ll get the job done.”
Ely’s role as Plant’s starting quarterback is one he cherishes. When he committed to the Crimson Tide in August, Ely – the latest in a long line of Plant football players in his family -- talked about how his dream growing up was never a college scholarship, but putting on a Plant varsity uniform.
So you can understand why there’s a different look in his eye. From the sideline, he could be forced to watch Plant’s season end Friday. Or Sanders could give him one more week to get better.
He doesn’t want to see the end. When he had to leave Monday’s practice for a therapy session, Plant coach Robert Weiner said he had to be taken “kicking and screaming.”
“And it had nothing to do about him needing to learn the plays,” Weiner said. “He sat there with me when we made up the play chart. I think it hit in his head that this could either be the last Monday or the second to last Monday.”
Ely is 28-2 as a varsity starter. He hopes to end his high school career 30-2.
What does his gut tell him? Will he be able to play Friday?
“Game-time decision,” Ely shrugs. “I’m putting all my marbles in it.”
“And now you come down to the final two games and he’s doing everything he possibly can to get out there,” Weiner said. “You think that somehow this is not the way it should end. You’re arguably talking about one of the best high school sports careers in Hillsborough County history.”
-- EDUARDO A. ENCINA (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @EddieHometeam)