After four years of hard work and a lifetime of playing the game, Murray County High School lineman Clay Thornbury had his senior football season ripped away from him after just one quarter of regular-season action in August.
A knee injury in the first quarter of a season-opening loss to Coahulla Creek took one sport away from him. But he was determined that he wasn’t going to miss his truest love.
“I love football and all of my teammates and playing on Friday night, but wrestling is — and always has been — my main sport,” Thornbury said. “It is where I feel most comfortable.”
A little over five months after finding himself lying on the turf in Varnell in pain, Thornbury is set to compete for the 195-pound title at the Class 2A state traditional tournament. Because of inclement weather across Georgia, the state wrestling tournament has been postponed from this weekend to next weekend. Originally scheduled for The Arena at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, the Georgia High School Association announced that it will use alternate sites because The Arena is not available next weekend. As of Thursday afternoon, ghsa.net had no further information on the relocation.
Thornbury’s return to athletic competition took a lot of determination, a ton of work and an attitude to do whatever it took to get back on a wrestling mat.
It hasn’t been easy.
“I have had to rehab like crazy, and it was kind of uncertain if I would be wrestling at all this year, and there were some times I felt like it wouldn’t happen,” Thornbury said. “The original injury time was supposed to be 12 weeks, and even then they weren’t sure that I would be able to do any real training for a couple of months. I just rehabbed a lot, got strong enough to walk and then eventually started lifting weights and running again. I started swimming to get back into shape and get back into a routine. By January I was wrestling again.
“It has been a difficult process, but it worked out in the end.”
Tibial plateau fractures account for 1 percent of all fractures and usually result from falls or automobile accidents, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (www.aaos.org). Injuries to the top part of the tibia on the lower knee have a cascading effect of affecting most of the other parts of the joint.
Thornbury’s father, Murray County High wrestling coach Clay Thornbury, said once the fracture occurred, it “blew a little bit of everything out,” affecting ligaments, tendons and tissues.
“I was concerned the night the injury happened, but the real concern came when we found out just how bad it was,” coach Thornbury said. “From the get-go, I had to prepare him that maybe wrestling wasn’t going to be an option.”
Dr. Nick Reed, a Murray County graduate and friend of the family, took over Clay’s care, performing multiple arthroscopic procedures to repair the knee. Coach Thornbury said his son “must have 20 scope scars on his knee.” After recovering from his treatment, Clay got to work, with his mother Beth taking him to rehab and workouts.
“Once I was cleared from the injury, it was pretty intense to get back in shape,” Clay said. “I had so little time to do it that I wanted to be sure to take every opportunity to get in shape. It was kind of hard at the beginning, but it gets easier as you go along. Just getting back into it was the hardest part.”
Coach Thornbury said that he had to protect his son from perhaps falling short of his goals, but once he saw how hard his son was working, he was impressed.
“Clay can do whatever he sets his mind to do, but I had seen his heart get broken when he worked hard all summer and didn’t get to play his senior year in football,” coach Thornbury said. “I didn’t want to see him get hurt again.
“I would like to tell you I could separate being his dad from being his coach, but I don’t.”
Clay was finally cleared to wrestle just days before the Area 3-2A duals. His first match came in the first round of the tournament against Calhoun on Jan. 3. While he admits to having some nerves, Clay said excitement more than anything else overcame him when he stepped on the mat.
“No one cried,” he said with a laugh. “But we were all excited. For me, it was ‘Finally!’”
For Dad, it was nervousness of a different kind.
“I had seen him in practice, and the first couple of times was difficult for me to watch,” coach Thornbury said. “It was tough for everybody. I definitely get emotional when I think of the work that he has put in. The purpose of all sports is to train you for life and dealing with setbacks and defeats, and he is getting a heavy dose of that. He has learned a lot of tough lessons. He could have folded up his tent and quit or he could have done what he did. It was a setback, but in a lot of ways, it has made us stronger and made us better.”
Clay made it through area duals with a single loss by a single point, and when the area traditional tournament rolled around, he was in prime condition.
“It is like riding a bike in that it all comes back to you, but it was kind of weird at first,” he said. “I knew I was better than last year because of all of the hard work that I had put into the summer, but I didn’t know how much was going to carry over after the injury. I didn’t know if I would be as good. But I had a goal and I wanted to reach it.”
The goal was to qualify for the state tournament, and he did that by finishing among the top four at the Area 3-2A tournament, winning at the 195-pound weight class on Feb. 1. Next came the Class 2A West sectional Saturday at Bremen High School, where Clay again won his bracket, although he only needed a top-four finish to qualify for state.
Now, he doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t keep winning and eventually bring home a state title, which is his ultimate goal. During his junior season, Clay finished fifth in the 182-pound bracket and said he learned a lot from that trip.
“I like my chances,” he said. “It does sound like some kind of movie ending, but it could happen. Feel-good stories happen all the time.”
His dad wouldn’t mind having his son be the hero in that story.
“He told me from the beginning that it would be a great story, and he has been determined to write that story,” coach Thornbury said. “You learn a lot more from adversity than success. Clay has learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean he can’t finish with a success.”