March 28, 2013

Injury not the end for Mountaineers kicker

Izzy Hernandez thought his knee injury was the “end of the world.”

Then the North Murray High School kicker and punter’s talent helped his football world expand.

This past fall, Hernandez suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of his senior year, but he still received attention from programs at the next level, including Tennessee’s Maryville College.

On Wednesday, North Murray celebrated Hernandez’s decision to join Maryville, an NCAA Division III program — a choice that could ensure the sight of Hernandez limping off the field at Mountaineer Stadium won’t be the final image of his football career. Although Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, Hernandez said he will receive an academic scholarship that pays some 85 percent of his tuition.

In the first half of North Murray’s 37-14 season-opening win against Southeast Whitfield, a Raiders defender rolled into Hernandez’s extended leg after he punted. Hernandez suffered a torn medial collateral ligament, torn meniscus and broken bone, ending his year.

“At first, I was down on myself,” he said. “That was basically the end of the world. That’s what was going through my mind.”

He made a field goal and two extra points before the injury, but that alone wasn’t enough for Mountaineers coach David Gann to share with prospective colleges. However, Hernandez had started at kicker since his freshman season, so there was plenty of video showing what he was capable of, and his junior season footage was sent to Maryville after Gann initially made contact.

“There’s a lot of recruiting fairs in Atlanta and I went to several of them,” Gann said. “It’s hard for a school like Maryville to stop at Dalton, Northwest (Whitfield) and here. So that’s where they heard about Izzy.”

Hernandez played soccer during elementary and middle school, but as an eighth-grader he was approached about joining the Gladden Middle School football team.

“They needed a kicker and said, ‘You can kick a soccer ball, so you should be able to kick a football,’” Hernandez recalled. “I just stuck to it and got better at it.”

That growth as a kicker is why his senior-year injury was so tough to deal with, Gann said.

“He’d come to practice with his balls and tees and go out on the game field and practice (kicking and punting) from start to finish,” Gann said. “It means a lot to him and he worked extremely hard. I was very disappointed for him because he worked so hard for it.”

Hernandez said he is close to 100 percent after surgery and rehabilitation. He wasn’t cleared to start kicking again until January, and the act he had mastered for the Mount-aineers seemed foreign at first.

“It took a lot to get used to it again,” Hernandez said. “I went out there and basically had to re-learn how to kick from the beginning. I couldn’t kick a ball to save my life.”

Hernandez said that before his injury, he consistently could kick 50- to 55-yard field goals in practice, with his longest from 60. In the two months since he has been cleared, he has reached the 45-yard range. And with the Scots, he hopes to increase his range even more than before the injury.

“A lot of times (injured players) are better than they were before the surgery,” Gann said. “There were even some bigger schools who were interested in him walking on and earning a spot as a kicker.”

Hernandez said he also was considering three other Division III programs — Birmingham-Southern, Tennessee’s Sewanee and Castleton State College of Vermont. But Maryville, which went 6-4 last season and 5-2 in the USA South Atlantic Conference, was close enough to home and could offer an immediate chance to earn a starting spot.

“Right now, what they told me is that their kicker just graduated,” Hernandez said. “They’re without a kicker. They are signing me and a couple other guys. They just told me, ‘Be ready to compete.’”

And competing for a spot on the field is a lot better than limping off it.

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