June 29, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Highland football: Injured Williams stays on field through friend

There’s a reason Grant Wallace leads the Highland football team in tackles: A part of best friend, neighbor and fellow linebacker Keith Williams is on the field with him.

“He’s always told me he’d be out there playing for me, that I was playing within him,” said Williams, who shattered two bones in his right forearm in the third game of the season. “It makes me feel really good. He’s such a good friend to me.”

Highland’s Grant Wallace, left, and Keith Williams are best friends. Early in the season, Wallace became a starter on defense after Williams was forced out of the lineup with two shattered bones in his right forearm. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Wallace, who has 98 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and five sacks from his outside linebacker position, didn’t start until the fourth week of the season, yet he’s the 13-0 Hornets’ leading tackler as they prepare to play 12-1 Glenville in a Division II state semifinal game Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Byers Field.

After seeing action on special teams and in blitz situations in the first two games, Wallace’s opportunity to play full time came when the 6-1, 200-pound Williams suffered a gruesome injury early in a Week 3 game against North Royalton.

Williams, who had amassed 15 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss and a sack in Highland’s first two games, was using his arms to push off the ground following a rare missed tackle. At that precise moment, a teammate flew in and hit his extended right arm with his helmet.

“I saw my arm go sideways,” he said. “I thought I had a stinger, but then when I lifted my arm off the ground, the bone was hanging straight sideways in the middle of my forearm. It was bad.”

Williams, like Wallace a junior, was in a full arm cast for two weeks and a half-cast for two more. He still has two steel rods in his arm that will be removed in January or February.

“He’s my best friend,” Wallace said. “To see him go out was terrible.”

It was also an opportunity. With Williams out for the season, Jonny Zaz switched from outside linebacker to the middle, with Wallace taking Zaz’s spot outside.

“It’s a little weird and kind of ironic,” Wallace said. “Anything can happen, and we’ve talked about that.”

Unless he’s been making one of his frequent visits to the doctor or needs a day to catch up on homework, Williams, whose locker is right next to Wallace’s, has been at every Highland practice. Arguably the team’s best defender prior to getting hurt, he does whatever he can to offer moral support to his teammates.

“I really want to be out there playing,” Williams said. “Every week, I get this feeling, kind of like a sadness. I see my friends out there, my teammates. I know I can’t play, but I want to give them everything I have, so I try to support them.”

That support is extended to the entire team, but an extra amount goes to fellow linebackers Wallace, Zaz and James Friedl, with Wallace getting specific attention and pointers.

“I always knew Grant was a good player,” Williams said. “He and I have played football together for seven years. It’s his athletic ability. He’s fast. When he breaks on the ball, he doesn’t really think. He sees things and hits the hole and makes tackles.”

Wallace, who has 4.7-second speed in the 40-yard dash and may add running back duties to his resume next season, has filled in so well that the Hornets haven’t missed a beat.

Like Zaz and Friedl, he’s not the biggest linebacker in the world, but he makes plays — and a lot of them.

“He’s slowly becoming our top defender or one of our top defenders,” Hornets coach Tom Lombardo said. “He’s got great speed and he’s a sure tackler and he’s aggressive. Those are his greatest qualities.”

“Wallace has stepped it up big time,” Zaz added. “He just flies around to the ball. I mean, he comes in and leads the team in tackles after being two games behind. That says it all.”

For Wallace, the only thing better would be if Williams was out there playing with him, but they take solace in the fact that will happen next season.

In the meantime, Wallace will continue to make tackles for two people.

“Keith is always there pumping me up before games, motivating me, all that great stuff,” he said. “He’s our No. 1 supporter. He’s definitely still part of the team.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.