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Not for a second did Alex Lennartz ever seriously contemplate quitting football.
Not even when the only way to get dressed in the morning was to lie on his bed perfectly still as his parents ever-so-carefully slipped his shirt over his head.
"I come from a football family. We love football and there's no way I'd want to stop playing," Lennartz said. "I've been playing sports since I was 5 and I love it. To take any of the sports I play out of my life would kill me."
And yet, ironically, it was football that once put Lennartz's life as he knew it in severe jeopardy.
Now a senior and the starting quarterback for 4-4 Grayslake Central, which needs a win tonight against Woodstock (1-7) to have a chance to qualify for the playoffs, Lennartz broke a bone in his neck freshman year, in the second half of his very first high school game. An opponent laid a cheap-shot hit on him as he was walking toward the sideline.
"I was already by the numbers," Lennartz said. "The play was over."
The madness happened on a punt that had been whistled dead 40 yards away. The opposing player charged an unsuspecting Lennartz and drilled him from behind, causing Lennartz to slip backwards and hit the back of his head on the ground.
Lennartz suffered a concussion, a broken collar bone and a chipped bone in his neck.
"I didn't have time to defend myself," Lennartz said.
Amazingly, Lennartz walked off the field. But then he immediately collapsed once he got to the bench. Eventually, he was stabilized by the trainers, and went home thinking that his worst problem was the concussion.
But as his nausea and neck pain worsened, his mother Heather insisted that he go to the local acute care center, where he got a CT scan. Before he knew it, Lennartz was being whisked away in an ambulance to Children's Hospital in downtown Chicago.
"That was pretty crazy," Lennartz said of the sudden change of locale. "Then I'm being told I've got a shattered vertebrae."
To heal his T1 vertebrae, Lennartz had to wear a neck brace every hour of every day for two months, even when he showered. The only exception was when he had to put on his shirt, a stressful proposition for both him and his parents. One false move and the chipped bone from his neck could have moved, lodged in his spinal cord and paralyzed him.
"Looking back, that was a pretty scary time," said Lennartz, who missed the rest of his freshman football season.
Lennartz, who has had to face the player who cheap-shotted him every year in football and twice a year in basketball, doesn't like looking back very much.
He has another devastating injury in his past, although not nearly as serious or potentially life-altering.
As a junior, after starting at quarterback for the sophomore team the year before, he entered last season as the Rams' starting varsity quarterback. Lennartz was progressing nicely. For a while, anyway. He went down in the fourth week of the season with a torn meniscus ligament in his knee.
Lennartz missed the rest of the season.
"It was terrible, it was the worst year of football of my life, probably even worse than freshman year with my neck," Lennartz said. "I would go to every practice and I'd see my teammates busting their butts and I couldn't do anything. I was supposed to be our quarterback and I was supposed to be a leader.
"That hurt a lot."
It also hurt Lennartz when he began to hear "the whispers." They were biting.
Lennartz says that some people around school and in the community were doubting his durability, labeling him as injury-prone, wondering if he could still handle the starting quarterback job.
"It was all background noise I would hear, in the halls, just all around," Lennartz said. "I kept hearing, 'Can he do it, can he play, can he handle it? Can he, can he, can he? It was bad. It was one of the lowest points of my high school career to hear that."
But Lennartz used his low point as a spring board. It fueled him to work harder than he ever has.
"I rehabbed my knee and came back for basketball season last year and it was OK, but once basketball ended, I really worked on it and got it back to 100 percent," Lennartz said. "Then, over the spring and summer I just worked really hard at everything else."
Lennartz was going to do that anyway.
"I know people have said that I'm not the most agile or athletic or fastest guy around," Lennartz said. "I took that to heart, too. I got in the weight room to get stronger. I used resistance bands and a weighted vest. I went to speed camps to get faster, I went to quarterback camps to work on my fundamentals. I went to so many of those camps I lost track, probably one every week or every other week. I also watched a lot of film.
"I wanted to do everything I could to make sure that I put myself in the best possible position to help my team this year. And I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to prove to everyone that I could take all the hits and make it through an entire season.
"I wanted to prove I could compete and succeed at this level."
So far, so good.
The tall (6-foot-4) and deceptive Lennartz has been a model of consistency and productivity this season. He's averaging nearly 100 passing yards as well as nearly 100 rushing yards per game.
Last week in a 28-12 win over Woodstock North, which broke Central's four-game losing streak and kept its playoff hopes alive, Lennartz completed 8-of-14 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown.
"Alex has really hit his stride lately," said Grayslake Central coach Ben Ault, who was especially excited to see Lennartz pile up 147 all-purpose yards against rival Grayslake North earlier this season. "He's making good reads, his decision-making has been very good. He's got good arm strength and he throws a nice ball. He's worked really hard to improve and be a better player."
For Lennartz, one of the most gratifying fruits of his labors is Grayslake Central's current status as a potential playoff team. He dreams of helping the Rams punch their ticket this weekend.
"It's so exciting to have the chance to go to the playoffs," said Lennartz, who is also excited to be hearing from some Division II and Division III college football coaches. "If we are able to make it this year, after everything that's happened, it would mean so much to me."
It would mean, essentially, that Lennartz made the right choice three years ago to never give up on football.
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw