Grace Academy's Corey Nelson is either a fast healer, a lucky guy or both. How else would one explain his amazingly quick recovery from a crippling football injury to help the Golden Eagles' basketball team?
The seemingly devastating lower-leg injury Nelson experienced six months ago isn't bothering him now, and proof lies in his 16-point average per game that paces the Golden Eagles going into Saturday's Region 3-A game against Signal Mountain at Grace Academy at 5 p.m.
The Region 3-AAA tournament began Thursday with the girls' quarterfinals. Girls' quarterfinals in Regions 4-AA, 3-AA and 3-A are scheduled tonight, along with one 3-AA boys' quarterfinal—Howard at McMinn Central at 7.
The remaining boys' quarterfinals are set for Saturday. Winning teams this weekend will move on to central sites beginning Monday. Girls' championships will be decided Wednesday and boys' titles will be decided Thursday.
Nelson's misfortune occurred Aug. 20 at Notre Dame in Grace's first football game of the season. He dislocated an ankle and suffered a broken bone, along with some ligament damage.
"He was really calm," Grace athletic trainer Tiffany Wilkes said. "You're always concerned about the athlete going into shock in a situation like that. He was aware of what had happened and let us do our thing."
The injury required surgery. Grace boys' basketball coach Jon Mattheiss said Nelson still has pins and screws in his ankle from the operation.
"We thought initially he would be out of sports for the year," Mattheiss said. "Then we we're told maybe he'd be back after Christmas, if he came back for basketball at all."
Nelson, a wide receiver and safety in football, progressed from wearing a cast to a boot to being able to walk. He eventually returned to the football practice field, where Wilkes supervised him doing cardio exercises, strength drills and stretching for about an hour and a half a day. He would then watch the rest of practice.
Wilkes said she was impressed with how Nelson put his all into his rehabilition time, and without complaining about any of the requisitions. As a result, he was able to play his first basketball game Dec. 3 at Boyd-Buchanan.
"He recuperated six to eight weeks ahead of schedule," Wilkes said. "That's a huge amount. There are so many hurdles. You have to get back your range of motion, your strength. For an athlete, especially, there's a lot of speed work. You have to be able to cut. And there's the psychological part. Would he be afraid of trying things out? His first game back he had a dunk."
Nelson admitted to being a little afraid of reinjury when he first returned. Now the 6-foot-4 swingman is fully back and booming.
"When it happened I thought I had just dislocated my ankle," Nelson said. "I didn't know I had a broken bone. It was pretty tough not getting to finish the football season. Now I'm glad it happened when it did."
Grace's Nathan Rector had injured his back late in football season and made his season debut on the court the same game as Nelson. The Golden Eagles were 1-3 before getting their only two returning starters from last year's state-runner-up team back in the lineup. They're 15-6 since.
Grace's most recent casualty is point guard Stephen Record with a shoulder injury. He remains questionable for Saturday's game.
Mattheiss is refraining from complaining about that. Without Nelson and 6-2 guard/forward Rector, who averages 11 points per game in addition to being a defensive stalwart, the team's uniforms might already have been put away until next year.
"I try not to think about that," Mattheiss said. "We're just so excited and so thankful to have those guys back."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.