Max O’Rourke went from calm to a case of the shakes, consumed with one terrifying thought.
“What if I miss?” the Rocklin High School senior wondered.
Of course, O’Rourke wasn’t going to blow his grand finale. The Thunder’s two-sport star was down to one play in his high school basketball career, the only minute he’ll play in a lost season. O’Rourke’s football season was cut short at the midway point when the quarterback suffered a grisly broken femur (thigh bone), casting doubt as to when he could walk normally again, never mind run.
Rocklin Senior Night on Wednesday was the culmination of his comeback. After months of rigorous rehabilitation – graduating from a cast and wheelchair, to crutches, to a slow gait to a labored jog – O’Rourke finally pulled on his beloved uniform and stepped onto the floor.
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In a set play heavy on sportsmanship and emotion, Rocklin and Nevada Union agreed to let O’Rourke start and receive the game’s first outlet and shoot a layup. He made it, then left the game. He was greeted by scores of grinning and high-fiving teammates with a backdrop of Thunder students applauding. By halftime, O’Rourke had switched back to his quasi-coaching garb of shirt, tie and slacks.
“It was very cool to see how everyone reacted, how they responded to my shot,” O’Rourke said. “I’m happy, but I was super nervous and thought during the national anthem: ‘Oh, man. Just don’t miss!’ It was a nice way to go out after all I’ve gone through.”
A 4.2 grade-point-average student, O’Rourke had anticipated an active senior year. It started with promise. He had the attention of Ivy League schools with his grades along with passing and kicking prowess for the Thunder. But it all changed on a routine tackle against rival Del Oro on Oct. 10 that left O’Rourke unable to stand or put any weight on his right leg.
Still, he wasn’t ready to leave the Rocklin stadium. There was a game to finish, one way or another, he figured, so O’Rourke convinced paramedics to let him watch the rest of the game from the back of the ambulance.
“What separates Max is his ability to be a leader in some of the most difficult situations,” Rocklin boys basketball coach Casey Cutts said. “I was on the field when he got hurt, and to see him, while on the gurney, calling over to his teammates to instruct them, to lead them, was a defining moment.”
The location of the break alarmed physicians. They found that a previously undetected fluid-filled tumor in his hip joint weakened the femur enough to allow the break. Now there was a sudden cancer scare. More examinations revealed that the tumor was benign, and surgery was a success.
O’Rourke was relegated to a wheelchair for a month, no easy transition for a young man used to zipping across campus. He was on crutches for seven weeks, all the while seeking out a stylish cane, monocle and top hat so he could “just go full Mr. Peanut.” Rival programs wrote him get-well cards. Athletes from other schools sent notes of encouragement.
O’Rourke vowed to return by the end of basketball season. The ambition was there even if the body wasn’t. O’Rourke remained closely linked to the program, charting statistics, urging teammates to compete because he was unable to.
O’Rourke wasn’t the only anxious one on Senior Night. Imagine his mom’s whirlwind.
“Proud, emotional, tears,” Erin O’Rourke said. “First time I saw him run! He just started running last week. Makes me a proud parent of a student-athlete.”
Said Cutts: “It was tough to watch Max go down in football, and you feel so bad for him because he’s just a kid. To see that stolen from him hurt all of us, and then he’s got to grow up fast. He worries more about others than himself. He apologized for not being able to play basketball.”
Cutts paused, then continued.
“We thought having him play a moment was perfect,” he said. “Max understood the gravity of the moment. It puts it all in perspective. Wins and losses are a small part of the job. We’re more about character and developing young men. To have this moment, it was special. Our players were almost giddy before the game. We had to calm them down, not because it was Senior Night, but because Max was going to be in a game, finally.”
O’Rourke’s layup was in relative slow motion, but he hasn’t slowed down since. The next day, he flew to Oregon for small-college football campus visits. He toured the facilities of Linfield in McMinnville and Willamette in Salem, pondering more days at quarterback and kicker while studying business, economics and marketing.
“It’s always go, go, go for me,” O’Rourke said.
Later this spring, O’Rourke plans one final comeback. He’ll attend the Rocklin senior ball, free of restrictions, and dance as if there’s no tomorrow.
“I’ve tried to make the most of everything,” he said. “All of this has made me really appreciate things. I’ll go to that senior ball, and I’m thinking about a cane and a top hat, too.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.