Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Joseph Champaign didn't want to miss any of Grayson's first-ever football game in the Georgia Dome. Or any substantial part of his junior season.

So when he broke his hand in the 2008 season opener against McEachern, he had it taped up and returned to the game. He continued to wrap it each week through a season-ending loss to Peachtree Ridge in the Class AAAAA semifinals.

In that playoff game, he got a finger from his opposite hand stuck in a Lion facemask and endured a nasty break. But he taped that one up, too, and finished the game.

Each hand was casted up after the season following surgery to put a screw in his wrist and a pin in his finger. Those are some of the battle scars that are expected, given the Grayson senior's intensity.

"Joseph's the type of kid who's going to put 100 percent into everything. He puts his heart into everything," Grayson head coach Mickey Conn said. "He's a straight A student and in the weight room, he's worked his way into being a big, physical player. His work ethic in the weight room is amazing. And he just plays with reckless abandon. He just plays so hard every play.

"He's got a tremendous motor. The way he plays the game, I compare him to (three-time Georgia All-American) Davey Pollack. He's always around the football, always going."

That hustle led to a more severe, and unexpected, injury this season.

Chasing down a play against rival Brookwood on Oct. 9, Champaign was hit with a crack-back block by a Bronco lineman. His cleat stuck in the ground and wrenched his knee. Though he returned for a few more plays, this one wasn't a tape-it-up injury. He had torn his ACL.

However, the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder didn't let it sideline him for long. Rehabbing with teammate Nick Benzor (also recovering from an ACL tear), he returned for the end of the regular season. Though he's limited to mainly fullback duties and fitted in a knee brace, he still is expected to be an impact player Friday when top-ranked Grayson hosts Newnan in the AAAAA quarterfinals.

"I like the challenge of overcoming something," Champaign said of the comeback. "I like to be challenged when people doubt me and I succeed and show them. Just like I might not be the biggest defensive end, but I still work hard and fight for every inch on the football field. The same thing if somebody doubts me if I'm not going to be able to play. That just pushes me and gives me the determination and drive to get back on the football field."

The latest injury will keep him from achieving at least one of his high school goals -- being a state champion wrestler. Champaign was a state qualifier as the Region 8-AAAAA runner-up 215-pounder his sophomore season, but the hand surgeries prevented him from wrestling.

Knee surgery in December will do the same this season.

"He probably could have been a two-time state champion if he had the opportunity," Conn said.

He hoped to at least give that a shot.

"A state championship in wrestling? That's hard to say," Champaign said. "I haven't been on the mat in two years and there are a lot of (heavyweight) competitors out there. I've been keeping up with it. That was always my dream for senior year, to be a state champion on the football field and (in wrestling)."

Settling for just one of those goals wouldn't be too bad, though.

That's the focus now for Champaign, a terrorizing force at defensive end as a junior, when he had 61 tackles and led Gwinnett with 14 sacks. He played that role again this season until his knee injury, leaving him as a one-way player.

Instead of racing after quarterbacks, his new role is as powerful lead blocker in the Rams' rush-heavy offense. He also maintains a heavy leadership role on a senior-laden team.

"He's a big-time leader," Conn said. "He associates with all the kids. He doesn't separate himself from the team. He leads by example and also by being vocal. He's an inspiration for us. He's made himself into what he is.

"For all the youth league players out there who have a dream of being all-state, Joe's a great example to those kids. If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do anything."

Conn has watched that transformation up close. He first saw Champaign as a chubby middle-schooler -- a "rolly polly" as Conn recalls -- but he worked himself into a freak physically. The next time the coach saw the standout, he didn't recognize him.

He has shown similar work ethic in the classroom, where he sports a 3.97 GPA. His only slip-up, a B by a point, came his sophomore year in gifted language arts. His latest experiences with injury have him interested in being an orthopaedic surgeon.

The unique skill set made him attractive to all three service academies, who each extended verbal offers. Schools like Stanford and Brigham Young also were interested, though the South's bigger ACC and SEC schools didn't recruit him heavily, which Conn and Champaign attribute to his lack of height.

He looked at the options closely, eventually committing to Navy, which also gives him the option of having medical school paid for should he go that route.

"Watching TV and watching Navy play, they really remind me of myself," Champaign said. "They might not be the biggest guys, but they fight. They might be undersized, but they never give up. They're tenacious. They're relentless. They never back down from a challenge. I see that in myself. I really made a connection with that and I felt like that was the school for me."

The Navy coaches can expect the same all-out effort from Champaign, according to Conn. He sees it every day in practice and every Friday under the lights.

Even if that kind of effort comes with battle scars. And the latest one couldn't keep him down.

"This is our last year and our last chance," Champaign said. "You're never promised anything except for today. (Benzor and I) wanted to work hard and show progress in getting better. We just wanted to get back out there with our brothers on the field and play again in the playoffs."