Mill Creek senior running back Carter Governale returns to the Hawks this season after back-to-back ACL tears. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Weariness limited the emotions and circumstances minimized the impact, but the moment will never leave Carter Governale.
“The emotions, I can’t describe it,” the Mill Creek senior said. “It is something I wish everybody could experience. The injury sucked, but how I felt after the touchdown was awesome.”
The carry went for one yard and crossed a solitary white line. But into that yard and over that line, Governale poured the fear of two surgeries, sleepless nights of what ifs, the anxiety and physical pain of rehabilitations and one lost season. The Governale who landed on that field’s hallowed ground was unrecognizable to the one who last felt that same ground two seasons ago.
“It’s not until you hit that adversity and something is taken away from you that you decide who you are going to be as a person,” Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis said. “To see this young man grow in two years, he’s become a man. Carter Governale has become a man.”
In the penultimate game of Governale’s sophomore season, Mill Creek took on Peachtree Ridge. A youth football phenomena, the young Governale had established himself as one of the Hawks’ top offensive threats. They were designing plays to get him the football.
On this play, he lined up as a receiver and cut hard on an out-route. The anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee popped. This was Game 9 of a 10-game bummer of a season.
“It couldn’t have happened at a better time to get healed and come back for the next season,” Jarvis said. “After that his competitive nature took over. We held him out of spring practice as well and just kept it light.”
Then in a practice to get ready for his junior year: A simple drill, a simple cut, another pop.
“I knew exactly what had happened out (on the practice field),” Governale said.
On the field, he broke the news, unverified yet certain, to Jarvis.
“I remember standing there on the field and him saying, ‘Coach, I heard it pop,’” Jarvis said. “I couldn’t fathom him tearing it again.”
The second surgery, this time borrowing muscle from his hamstring rather than his patella to connect the knee, happened a week before Governale’s junior football season. Pain meds numbed his knee and his heart for the first half of the season.
“It got to like Week 5, Week 6, we were making a real push, we were good and I wanted to be a part of it,” Governale said. “It was really easy to support everybody because they were supporting me. Instead of being negative about everything, I tried to be positive. There were times … I’d stay up all night thinking about what could have been.”
He watched it wear on his mother and struggled to focus in classes. He kept up with his rehabilitation and eventually started adjusting his diet. Through the two surgeries, the muscular Governale ballooned to 220 pounds. Beyond his diet, he adjusted his perception. He fought off the negativity as it crept through the shadows during his sleepless nights. He read blog posts by Adrian Peterson, the NFL running back who returned from an ACL tear in 2012 and finished nine yards short of matching the league’s single season rushing record. He cheered for his teammates.
Much earlier than most of his peers, he faced his athletic mortality.
“Looking back at it now, I don’t wish it on anybody, but I am glad it happened to me,” Governale said. “It’s made me a much better person. I am not as selfish as I used to be. Football is not everything. It means a lot, but football is not always going to be there for you. There is so much more out there. You’ve got to eventually sit down and have this discussion with yourself and I had to do it a lot earlier. I am not glad it happened, but I am thankful for it.”
Then came the next step.
It was spring sports season and Governale signed up for track. His first meet was a junior varsity competition at Mill Creek. The football coaches lined the fence to watch. He didn’t set a record, not even a personal one, but he won the meet.
“That was the first time I could see that fire in his eyes and I knew he was back then, mentally,” Jarvis said. “I was more worried about the mental part of it. Track was huge for him.”
It wasn’t football, though. That required another boost of confidence.
Governale finished the spring healthy, but Jarvis wanted to keep the reigns tight. He’d seen the unthinkable twice now. The Mill Creek coaches planned to ease him into the game, a few passes and a couple of carries. A bit of contact, but no heavy load. Protecting a lead in the third quarter in this year’s opener vs. Dacula, Jarvis called on No. 5.
“He made a spin move in the middle of the drive and I remember thinking, ‘OK, he’s back,’” Jarvis said. “We had a plan to bring him along slowly. He got out there against Dacula and finished up the drive with a huge touchdown run.”
“I feel like (the coaches) were just as happy for me when I scored, if not happier than me,” said Governale, who once scored six times in a youth football game. “I used to take scoring a touchdown for granted, but it came to the point where that one touchdown (against Dacula) meant so much more to me then all those touchdowns I’d scored before. I’d throw all those touchdowns away just to score that one touchdown against Dacula.”
More touchdowns followed the next week against Brookwood. Longer runs with less emotion crammed into each yard. He became, or rather returned to, Carter Governale, Mill Creek running back.
“We treat him as he’s full speed,” Jarvis said. “That’s the biggest compliment we can give to Carter is that this isn’t a story anymore.”
It’s part of his story, part of who he is and, thankfully for Governale, part of his past.
“I want it finally to be over with,” Governale said. “It’s nice to just be a running back again. It’s been a journey.”