FRONT ROYAL — Blake Appleton said he was “goofing off” playing receiver during 7-on-7 football practice at Skyline last November when the Hawks’ starting quarterback fell to the ground with an injury to his right knee.
Appleton, recalling the moment nine months later, called it a “fluke” incident that happened as he was making a routine football play, but the injury was a serious one. Most of his teammates thought he was joking around when he went down, Appleton said last week, but then-senior Logan Maiatico, who had been about 10 yards away from his QB when it happened, heard the pop as Appleton’s knee gave way.
“That’s when everybody knew something was wrong,” Appleton said. “I had it in my head like, ‘No, this can’t happen, this can’t be real.’ I tried to get up and walk it off and that didn’t end up going too well. I think it was actually Logan and (then-senior Will Wolf) that carried me off the field, carried me up the hill, and on to the hospital I went.”
That trip to the hospital revealed Appleton had torn his ACL and meniscus. His junior season, moved to the spring of 2021 due to COVID-19, had ended three months before it was scheduled to begin.
Appleton had surgery on Dec. 7, then spent the spring on the sideline watching as Skyline, a team loaded with seniors and high expectations, went 5-1 during the condensed regular season and won a Class 3 Northwestern District title before falling to high-powered Independence in the Region 3B semifinals in April.
Appleton, who passed for 2,084 yards and 25 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019, helped the team any way he could last spring — including aiding Ethan Caperton with his switch from receiver to quarterback — but it wasn’t the same as leading and producing on the field.
“It was devastating,” Appleton said. “Me and that team, we worked so hard and I felt so confident about that season, and for something like that to happen, that’s devastating not only to me but to my teammates that were counting on me to be out there. … That puts a lot of pressure on everybody else, but they did good and they handled it well.”
Though Skyline head coach Heath Gilbert said last week that he’d initially feared the injury would keep Appleton sidelined for his senior season this fall as well, Appleton said he never shared that concern and was determined from the week of his surgery that he would be back by the time the Hawks opened preseason camp this summer.
That confidence was justified when Appleton, a brace on his right knee, joined his teammates for the first day of practice on July 29 and afterward proclaimed himself fully healthy and ready to compete this season.
“I’ve got a lot to prove to a lot of people,” Appleton said last week, echoing words he stated after Skyline’s first practice last month. “I missed out on a whole year, so I’ve got a lot of extra touchdowns I want to make up for. I’m just glad to be back on the field.”
During the rehabilitation process, Appleton set “little goals in my head that I wanted to reach every week,” he said, things like increasing his range of motion or progressing from needing two crutches to walk to only requiring one. Around the four-month mark, he added, he was performing some football-related activities such as weight room work and minor cutting drills.
“I definitely attacked the recovery hard because that’s something I don’t like doing, is just standing around watching, feeling helpless,” Appleton said.
Appleton’s return is a boost for a Skyline squad that graduated 15 seniors from last season’s team and is in need of veteran leadership heading into the 2021 fall campaign.
Appleton, Gilbert said, took part in quarterback drills with Skyline’s coaching staff as far back as fifth grade when the Hawks’ program used to conduct youth camps, and he began practicing with the team when he was in seventh grade, before he was even eligible to play.
Gilbert described the senior as a competent QB who can execute the intricacies of Skyline’s offense, has the physical ability to make the necessary throws and is smart enough to read defenses and make checks at the line to put his offense in the best situation to succeed.
“He’s not just a football player for us. He’s a leader,” Gilbert said, noting the large amount of leadership Skyline lost to graduation from last year’s team. “You’ve got to really lean on Blake Appleton to be able to keep us going in the right direction, because hearing it from the coaches is different than hearing from your peer. That means something.”
Appleton’s return hasn’t been seamless. As if coming back from a major injury wasn’t enough, the senior was forced to clear another hurdle when he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and had to quarantine for 10 days.
Appleton missed valuable practice time and had to sit out Skyline’s first scrimmage on Aug. 13 — the day he was cleared to return — that would’ve aided in the chemistry-building process between himself and the rest of a Skyline offense that will break in a slew of new starters when the Hawks take on Strasburg in Friday’s opener.
“For us, we’re lucky that he’s so smart but that setback with COVID wasn’t good for everyone else because they need the reps with him,” Gilbert said. “On his end, I think we knew he’s not gonna forget the playbook. He’s got that mastered. It’s just doing it with his buddies.”
Setbacks aside, Gilbert said Appleton — who noted that he had to overcome the mental challenge of playing football full speed on a surgically repaired knee — has physically looked every bit like he did pre-injury.
“When he gets pressure and he escapes in the pocket, or in his read-option pulls, it looks like it (always) has,” Gilbert said. “I don’t see any kind of drop-off or sudden movements, no change in direction or he’s getting out of the pocket and flying away. He looks ready to roll.”
Gilbert added that Appleton would play this fall with “no handcuffs at all.” Appleton, who has wins on his mind and school single-season passing records on his personal radar, said he’s “out to leave a legacy” in his senior season and is ready to prove that he can come back bigger, better and stronger.
“I’m good. I’m back,” Appleton replied confidently when asked if he’d be playing under any physical limitations this fall. “That was one of my main concerns, is I didn’t want to come back and not be who I was as a football player. I wanted to play football like I know how to play football.”