Almost 10 days later, he can only go without the crutches for so long. Take too many steps without any help, and his right knee begins to feel like the wrong end of a boring drill.
But crutches don’t belong on football fields, and Brad Tipton knows it.
So he walked.
It may have taken the Southern Lee Cavaliers’ team captains a little extra time to reach midfield for the ceremonial coin toss before Brick City Bowl IV at Paul Gay Stadium on the campus of Lee County High School.
Didn’t matter. They had a teammate in the middle. And his knee hurt.
“I only started trying to walk without the crutches the last day or so,” Tipton says, eight days after his football career came to an end in the pouring rain of a 54-0 loss. “I can walk a little bit, but then my knee starts to grind and it hurts.”
He boldly made the march to the middle of the field, where Lee County’s team captains and the head referee waited. From there the coin toss was simple routine for everybody involved — everyone, that is, but the Tipton family.
“I had a huge knot in my throat,” says Terry Tipton, Brad’s father, a man who has helped raised three sons with the aid of his wife — and football. “To see Brad out there as a captain, out there for the coin toss, that meant so much to me. I was so proud of my son.”
Terry Tipton’s youngest son — as painful as it is, you have to put this in the past tense, but that’s the nature of the game sometimes — was an undersized high school linebacker.
But he had the heart of a Butkus. Tipton never played a high school game as a sophomore last season. What he did do, though, was make it through picture day.
Well, the picture anyway.
Later that day, in the second full practice of the year, Tipton went one way and his foot went another, wrenching his right knee and tearing the anterior cruciate ligament. His sophomore season was done before it even came close to starting.
After surgery in December repaired his knee, Tipton began the long road back, rehabbing the knee ritually to make it back in just six months. He was cleared to play football again in June.
He didn’t make it through August. This time, Tipton played in Southern Lee’s season-opener at South Johnston. A week later, he was in pursuit on a sweep and closing in to assist on the tackle. Near the sideline, sensing that the play was headed out of bounds, Tipton eased up and planted his right leg. On the wet field his foot slid under another player and Tipton was hit. His body fell sideways.
His knee didn’t move.
“On the first injury, I didn’t really think something was wrong,” Brad says. “I didn’t think I had torn anything.
“But the second one was much worse. I heard it pop and my knee just came completely apart. It was the worst pain I ever felt.”
Three days later, in the same doctor’s office where his football career had been preserved less than a year before, Brad found out his career was over.
“If he was 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and a Division-1 prospect, maybe it would be different,” Terry says. “Maybe. Even then, it would be hard to make a kid go through potentially three surgeries.”
Brad Tipton’s right knee doesn’t have much of its original package left. The ACL he had repaired was actually a patella tendon from a cadaver, but that one tore too against E.E. Smith. Tipton’s meniscus is also torn and his MCL is severely strained.
But, as he walked out onto the field with the crowd swelling and buzzing around him for the biggest game in Lee County the 2009 season will ever know, Tipton also felt a twinge in his heart.
“It was emotional for me,” Brad says. “It felt great as I was walking out there. I heard fans yelling my name and I was happy. It was very emotional going out there, because this was something I had always wanted to do, and now I was doing it, but my career was over. But it happened in a game that was really important to me.”
The Tiptons can thank new Cavaliers coach Eric Puryear for the memorable moment. Midway through a defensive meeting before Friday night’s game, Puryear motioned to Brad to come speak to him and delivered the news. Brad would be a team captain.
“He asked me, “How’d you like to go out for the coin toss?'” Brad recalls. “I was like, “Oh yes, sir! I would love that.'”
“It’s small gesture, but it means a lot,” Terry Tipton says of Puryear’s move. “It says so much about Coach Puryear that he’d be willing to do that for Brad. It says a lot about the man and it lets you know that Coach Puryear really cares about his players.”
The moment didn’t last long, a mere formality to the actual game of football.
But as the players hustled back to their teams, waiting to take the field as a group, Brad Tipton lingered for an extra few seconds, milling about between the hash marks, taking his time between the white lines one last time with his 31 jersey on his back.
And then he limped to the sideline.