Jason Young tumbled to the ground, reaching for his heart.
The beats pounded through his chest. He remembers that detail vividly three years later.
Within minutes of the first football practice of his career, something about his heart felt wrong.
Then a freshman at Blue Springs High School, Young had never played a day of organized football. A heart condition had robbed him of the chance.
At this particular moment, he feared he would never play another.
“I thought I was done already,” Young said. “I felt like I was having a heart attack.”
Much has changed for Young, now a senior for the Wildcats, but he thinks about that moment nearly every day, especially when he’s on the football field.
“Never know when a practice or a game might be your last,” he said. “Gotta play like it might be.”
Young has recorded nine sacks and 60 tackles for Blue Springs, which plays Francis Howell for the Class 6 state title at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Coupled with Elijah Lee, the teammates are a thunder-and-lightning combination in one of the state’s most formidable defensive lines. Young stands only about 5-foot-8 — even though he’s listed at 6-1 — but with legs that resemble tree trunks, he represents the thunder.
Lee symbolizes the lightning. Blue Springs coach Kelly Donohoe says Lee is faster off the edge than any player he’s coached in recent memory. In his first year with Blue Springs after transferring from St. Joseph Central, Lee has 15 sacks while playing defensive end.
“I go outside; (Young) goes inside,” Lee said. “One of us is getting through.”
Young’s journey to Saturday’s title game has been rocky at best and unforgiving at its worst.
Heck, three years ago, when Blue Springs made its last state championship appearance, Young embarrassingly admitted he didn’t understand the concept of a state championship. Didn’t even know it existed.
After spending his childhood aspiring to play football — or any sports, for that matter — winning and losing became pure background noise.
When Young was 4 years old, doctors discovered he had a heart murmur — a result of a hole in his heart — and told him to stop all strenuous physical activity, because it caused shortness of breath. He was instructed not to run if he were to play backyard football, so he didn’t bother participating at all.
For the better part of a decade, he was purely a spectator. And an outsider.
“All my friends would be talking about all their sports,” Young said. “And I couldn’t do something as simple as running. That was really hard.”
Over the summer prior to Young’s freshman season, the hole in his heart had shrunk, and doctors cleared him to play sports.
His first day didn’t go well.
On a hot August afternoon in 2009, he set out to impress the football coaching staff. Minutes later, he crumpled to the grass while performing a sprinting drill.
“I wanted to show how big and fast I was, and I could feel my heart racing,” Young said. “It felt like it was coming through my chest.”
He sat out the next three weeks, wondering if he would ever put on football pads again.
Young returned to the football field in the middle of his freshman season. He felt healthy, and his heart hasn’t bothered him since.
But that wasn’t the end of his struggles.
His lack of playing experience was evident. He didn’t understand the lingo, and many of the assignments confused him.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have told you what a guard or a tackle was,” Young said. “I’d never heard those terms before.”
Despite the enormous strides Young needed to make with the mental part of the game, the coaching staff loved Young’s potential, given his size, speed and athleticism.
They threw him at linebacker, moved him to running back his sophomore season and then moved him back to linebacker.
Finally, they placed him on the defensive line.
“He’s a mismatch for an offensive lineman,” Donohoe said. “We put him there and just let him make a move, and that’s hard to stop.”
Young found his home, and the Wildcats are better for it. The defense has allowed only 18 points over the past two victories as they head into Saturday’s state championship.
This time, no one needs to explain to him what a state title game means.
“Everybody talks about one goal, and that one goal is a state championship,” Young said. “When you hear it enough, you start to want it, too.”
Young paused before collecting another thought.
“But I think I’ll just be happy to be on that field,” he said. “Even on that first day, nothing went right, but something about being on the football field still just felt right. It’s where I belong.”
To reach Sam McDowell, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.
To reach Sam McDowell, send email to <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>. Follow him at Twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.