Damen Wheeler saw his son of the same name go up for a pass four years ago and come down awkwardly in a gopher hole during his eighth-grade Junior Midget football game.
Then came a horrific, loud crack, something no coach or dad wants to hear.
"He's screaming, crawling, yelling, 'It's over, Dad!' " Wheeler said Tuesday about his son's broken leg. "I was rubbing his head, calming him. Then I looked at his leg and got sick, rolled over on my back and was out.
"Next thing I know, I'm in the ambulance with him. He has an oxygen mask on. I have an oxygen mask on. We're a mess, and I'm supposed to be the tough one."
Wheeler is still tough, but now he has competition. His son is standing out in this game of hard knocks, just as his dad once did. And the younger Wheeler, a senior receiver and defensive back at Sacramento High School, is still being coached by his father, an assistant coach for the Dragons.
Wheeler, The Bee's Offensive Player of the Year at Valley in 1995, was a small yet gritty tailback and superb cover corner who led the Vikings to a 12-1 season. Wheeler then started four years at cornerback at Colorado before stints in the NFL, XFL and Arena Football League.
The son has his father's face, manners and quickness, and he's a little taller at 6-foot-1 and a bit lighter at 155 pounds. He also is dealing with the same injury his father had in college, a sports hernia. Though he has blown past defenders to catch five touchdown passes from quarterback Caden Voges to help the Dragons get off to a 3-1 start, he's rarely playing defense because of the hernia, which "really hurts us because he's our best defender," head coach Paul Doherty said.
"It does hurt, but I need to play," said Wheeler Jr., who is generating interest from recruiters. "I take ice baths after practice. I try to ease it any way I can."
His father certainly understands the toll football can take on a player.
"I have arthritis in my back and neck," Wheeler said. "The nerves in my elbows are gone. I tore ligaments in both knees. I had two surgeries on each shoulder. I didn't want my son to play football, but he really wanted to play, and after he broke his leg and came back, how can I not let him play?"
The trophy case inside venerable Dave Hotell Pavilion on the oldest high school campus in the Valley displays few signs from the school's glory days from the 1940s to the early 1970s.
The case features a large photo of Hotell, who coached in the 1970s when the Dragons featured scores of Pacific-8 Conference recruits and died in 1984, and is full of basketball trophies honoring the girls and boys teams that have become state powers since Sacramento became a charter 10 years ago. When there were concerns the school would shut down, the football trophies were scooped up by unknown parties.
Now the Dragons are creating their own football identity under Doherty.
Doug Cosbie, the former Dallas Cowboys tight end, became the Dragons coach in 2006. He brought along Doherty, who played for Cosbie at Menlo College in the early 2000s. They inherited a program suffering from too few players, as well as coaching and administrative turnover.
"I was in the Bay Area, owned a strength and conditioning program in Los Altos Hills, had a nice house," Doherty said. "Cosbie called me and I couldn't turn him down. Sold my business and home, and here I am.
"Maybe I'm naive and crazy, but there's optimism here. It can happen. It's doable."
Cosbie, who left after the 2009 season, is coaching a state-ranked high school team in Hawaii, in paradise compared to the Oak Park scene he left behind.
But Doherty sees the potential for paradise at Sac High, too, with the Dragons going to the playoffs five times since 2007, yet still seeking their first playoff victory (the playoffs started in 1976).
Sunburned and youthful in appearance, Doherty hustled from the locker room and bounced from station to station on the practice field, yelling, "Let's go, let's go, let's go!"
"It's like turning a wheel, and I've got that wheel, and if you stop even for a day, it stalls," Doherty said. "You have to keep the kids eligible, keep them lifting weights, keep them together. I embrace it."
Doherty installed the spread offense several years ago to take advantage of the team's speed, and he said Folsom's coaches have been terrific in giving him access to their film and practices to study the spread the Bulldogs use so successfully.
Then Doherty broke out laughing, pointing to his hardscrabble practice field, not far from a quaint football field that is home to the Dragons. In contrast, many area teams have pristine field turf.
"This is what we have," said Doherty. He then credited Bob Storrs, the campus maintenance guru, who "mows the field, waters it, paints it, all in an effort to make the program go."
In young Wheeler, the Dragons have a receiver who helps make their offense go.
Last year, he had 22 catches, including 10 for touchdowns, for the Dragons, who won eight games. This season, he has 15 catches, including six for touchdowns.
"Playing football," Wheeler said, "is the most fun I've ever had. It can be fun for all of us."
Doherty nodded. He's been offered other coaching jobs, but he's committed to Sac High.
"Some of it's pride and ego, but I'm trying to finish what we started, and kids like Damen Wheeler and the others make that possible," Doherty said.
TEN MORE WHO ARE CATCHING ON
Sacramento High's Damen Wheeler Jr. isn't the only area receiver having a big season.
TARON JOHNSON, SHELDON
The score: Johnson, also a superb defensive back, has hooked up often with quarterback Nolan Merker in the Huskies' 3-2 start, including four touchdowns in the last game.
WILL McCLURE, FOLSOM
The score: The next top-tier target for the No. 1 Bulldogs (5-0) has emerged seemingly out of nowhere (one catch in 2012) for quarterback Jake Browning.
KYLE BETTS, BRADSHAW CHRISTIAN
The score: Betts, also a hard-hitting safety, has worked well with quarterback Kevin Williams to help Bradshaw Christian get off to a 3-2 start.
MARC ELLIS, GRANITE BAY
The score: Ellis, who had just three receptions in 2012, has been a reliable target for quarterback Josh Neal and the No. 5 Grizzlies (3-1).
JUSTIN HOLMES, OAKMONT
The score: Holmes is a rising recruit with a penchant for big plays, and he and quarterback Jordan Naab have the Vikings off to a 2-2 start.
TROY KNOX, FOLSOM
The score: Is it fair that quarterback Browning has so many targets and a chance to go unbeaten again?
JUSTIN PRIEST, OAK RIDGE
The score: Priest and sophomore quarterback Ian Book have the No. 4 Trojans off to a 5-0 start and face undefeated Folsom next week.
KYLE BRYANT, COLFAX
The score: Bryant and fellow receiver Chas Reisinger (three touchdowns) give quarterback Michael Wilson options for the No. 20 Falcons (4-0).
JAKE ROMINE, CASA ROBLE
The score: The No. 14 Rams, 1-9 last season, are 4-1 behind the duo of Romine and quarterback Peyton Wilfley.
WYATT DEMPS, PLEASANT GROVE
The score: Demps has been the preferred target for quarterback Dre Terrell in the No. 3 Eagles' 5-0 start.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD, check out his PrepsPlus Insider every Monday at blogs.sacbee.com/preps and listen to his "Extra Point" every Wednesday on ESPN Radio 1320.