Mill Creek senior Kyle Freiberger, who tore the ACL in his knee earlier this summer, attemped to rehab his knee and postpone surgery until after the season. But on Aug. 17, his knee gave out again and he'll have to sit out his senior season.
Hoschton Mill Creek's varsity football practice, just nine days before the season opener, was less than 15 minutes old when the typical yelling and constant motion was replaced by silence and eerie stillness.
Though there were hundred or more people in the vicinity, nobody said a word. They just stared at the scene surrounding wide receiver Kyle Freiberger, who was writhing in pain and clutching his brace-covered left knee.
The senior, crying out of frustration rather than the intense pain, was immediately embraced by Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis and wide receivers coach Chad Rogers. The coaches were in tears, so were many of the seniors, guys who knew Freiberger's path to get back on the field.
"When that injury happened, everybody on the field knew what happened and the significance of it," Jarvis said of the Aug. 17 practice. "They all knew how hard he'd been working and rehabbing to get ready to play (this) Friday night against Dacula. It was very emotional. There were a lot of tears. There were a lot of coaches shedding tears, too."
The Hawks had been without Freiberger for nearly two months after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during an early summer camp at Appalachian State. He initially thought that injury was season-ending, but elected to forego surgery in hopes that he could play his senior season with the torn ACL.
The hard work looked like it had paid off as Freiberger went through three or four sessions at full speed without an issue. His doctor even cleared him for minimal contact on Aug. 17, the day his knee gave out again, without any contact.
He made a simple turn on an out route, like he had done hundreds of times before, and his left knee buckled. At that moment, he knew his senior football season was lost. Within the hour, his doctor essentially confirmed the same, which was revealed with certainty in an MRI the next day.
"It was the worst feeling ever," Freiberger said. "I worked for something my whole entire life and then the next thing you know it was completely gone. The biggest thing I've learned is don't take anything for granted, because at any time things can be gone. I feel like things happen for a reason. There's a bigger plan in all of this than just why it happened. I keep my head up. I'm not going to get down about it."
Freiberger's trip to Appalachian State was more than a camp, it was a family gathering. His immediate family tagged along and his grandparents even met him at the Boone, N.C., school.
The camp was nearly over, with less than an hour remaining, when he ran an out route. The coaches asked him to do an in-cut first and before the route was over, the 6-foot-1, 181-pounder was on the ground, the ACL in his left knee torn.
An MRI upon his return home showed the damage.
"In my head, I was thinking there was no way I could play (after the camp injury)," Freiberger said. "Then once the third day got over and I started walking, I was like, I want to try. It's my senior year. There's nothing I can lose. I started rehabbing. I rehabbed hard for a month and a half. As hard as I've ever worked.
"I got back to pretty good range of motion. I was strong. I was ready to play. I thought for sure I was going to be ready for Dacula. And just like that, it was done."
His dream of returning ended painfully close to the Aug. 26 opener. He set that game, with rival Dacula, as his goal. Since he was a youth football player, he dreamed of high school football and he got three varsity seasons of it with the Hawks.
But there's only one senior season, only once chance to wear your high school uniform and pads for the last time. For Freiberger, that final game may be the Class AAAAA quarterfinal loss at Colquitt County last year.
He didn't want it to be that way, which is why he toiled through rehabilitation sessions as many as five times a day to get ready for the opener. He knew his return wasn't guaranteed, but he nearly made it.
Until his Aug. 17 practice injury, which he said is still "a blur."
"I wanted to have another chance to play football with my teammates," Freiberger said. "For me, it was one last shot of getting out there with my teammates than anything."
'A huge loss' for Hawks
Jarvis called it 'a huge loss' to be without Freiberger, a veteran who is one of the team's leaders, because of his presence both on and off the field.
He maintains a 3.9 GPA, ranking right at No. 100 in a senior class of more than 1,000 students, and has played more varsity football than many of his teammates over the past few seasons. The leadership he brings can't be replaced, Jarvis said. He's one of the most well-liked Mill Creek players for a reason.
It also will be tough to fill the void at receiver. Freiberger caught 18 passes for 265 yards last season while playing alongside Brandon Hayman, the school's all-time leading receiver in every category, but he had moved to the Z position and was featured prominently in 7-on-7 passing league games.
While he was set for a breakout season in terms of catching passes, he already made his mark elsewhere last season, with his physical blocking.
"The first thing he brought, specifically last year, was his toughness at the position," Jarvis said. "He set a school record for pancake blocks by a wide receiver and we started using that stat because of how physical he was playing. A lot of the long runs we had were because of the downfield blocks of him and the other receivers. They started being physical and Kyle was the one leading the way."
With more than a week, Freiberger has a new attitude on the situation. He's looking forward and beyond the questions of why such horrible luck came his way.
He hasn't missed a practice yet, still soldiering on alongside his teammates in the heat every day. He offers motivation and pats on the back, gestures the Hawks will see plenty of this season.
"I'm not going anywhere," Freiberger said. "I'll be out at practices. I've got the surgery next Wednesday and I'll be out Thursday, but I'll be back for the game that Friday. I enjoy being around these guys. They're like my brothers."
As for Freiberger's future, his goal is still college football. He was getting interest from college programs, including regular inquiries from Ivy League schools, prior to his injury, but he realizes that his odds of a scholarship are slim without playing his senior season.
A more realistic goal is to walk on at a school in Georgia and use his HOPE Scholarship to pay his way. Ideally, he would love to join his beloved Georgia Bulldogs as a walk-on, a possibility that may open up for him.
Those options are down the road, though. His current focus is on motivating his teammates and working on returning to 100 percent post-surgery.
He's not quite ready to call off his own high school career, either.
"I'm hoping that maybe if we make the state championship game, then I'll be ready to play," Freiberger said. "If that doesn't work out, then I still want to play in college. I really want to play football somewhere."