Jim Adams: Passion to play pushes NU senior through journey
In her memoirs, Jami Hopper writes, “I was not positive and became very sad, angry and heartbroken all over again. I could not believe this was happening. He did everything he was asked to do and received no rewards for his efforts. Kirby comforted me as I broke down repeatedly over the next few days.”
Oddly, this captures part of the Hopper sentiment that has earmarked their existence of the last three years. You see, it has been a battle of bravery, persistence, dedication, and loyalty that is rarely witnessed in sport today.
Kirby Hopper arrived on the scene with great fanfare. He came off a very successful season at Union Hill Junior High. Nevada Union freshman football coaches Brown and Sharpe welcomed him in June. He went through a series of tests before joining an 80-man squad. He was the fastest on the team. There was so much reason for optimism.
“I kept pushing myself everyday,” Kirby said. “I wanted to be a running back. I loved it.”
He excelled that freshman year, as a third down specialist, averaging a touchdown per game and a whopping 16 yards per carry. Along with Drew Hoskin, they made a dynamic combination. It was developing into a stunning year. The team was 7-0 going into the championship contest against Elk Grove.
However, the second offensive play would usher in a series of events that would change it all.
Hopper was in motion. Quarterback Broughan Jantz had called an option play. As Kirby pulled to block, he executed a perfect hit. However, as his left foot planted, the rest of his body went in the opposite direction. The Elk Grove linebacker finished the play by falling on top of him.
“It was the worst pain I ever felt. I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “All I knew was that my knee was killing me.”
Not only was his ACL gone, his MCL had also been destroyed. It was one of the worst injuries an athlete could suffer.
Surgery would wait until December. Dr. Roland Dutton did a masterful job. He had removed a hamstring tendon to serve as the new knee replacement. Kirby and his family knew that this chapter would be behind them … or so they thought.
Following two weeks of rest, rehabilitation with the help of Dr. Kevin Ivey was grueling. However, he never gave up and he never relented in his obsession to play Junior Varsity football. Everything he did was with “the return” in mind.
However, not everyone agreed that the drive towards playing that sophomore year was in his best interest. NU trainer Jamie Wise approached him and suggested he take that sophomore year off. He urged him to let it heal. He noted that he would have his junior and senior years left.
However, there was no stopping him.
His rehabilitation time from the initial injury was a mere 8 1⁄2 months. He was cleared for game three, the big Del Oro matchup.
However, on the Wednesday before the game, disaster struck a second time. On a sweep around the left side he knew he was in trouble.
“I was ready and it was going well but I suddenly thought, ‘Where are my blockers?'” he said.
The defensive players all converged to make the tackle. It was a hard hit. Accompanying it was the same pain of a year ago.
As it was being confirmed that he had again torn the same ACL, Hopper remembers, “It felt the same as it did the first time. I was too eager to come back.”.
Although Jim Hopper was there to witness it all, wife Jami skipped practice that day. She was too nervous. When she received the call from husband Jim, she recalls, “I couldn’t believe this was happening. I couldn’t imagine it could be the ACL again. It was heartbreaking. I felt that for all the hard work this just was not right.”
They immediately consulted with Dr. Dutton. He referred them to the head orthopedic surgeon of the Sacramento Kings, Dr. Richard Marder. The second surgery would be carried out sooner rather than later.
However, the pain of the moment was soon to catapult into a family catastrophe. Three days after Kirby’s injury, Jim’s dad was involved in a horrific accident off of Old Tunnel Road. He was life-flighted to UC Davis Medical Center. The prognosis was grave. Ironically, the car trip in which the injury was suffered was one in which Kirby was scheduled to be with his grandfather…if it had not been for the second ACL tear.
The family was suddenly confronted with two major events, Kirby’s second torn ACL and the possibility that in the same week they might lose Jim’s dad. They wondered if life could get much worse.
Kirby went to visit his grandfather on life support. “It might be the last time I get to see him. I wasn’t even thinking about my knee. What are the odds? However, I would have been in that car. My ACL tear may have been a life-saving event.”
This injury was more severe than the first. He had no ACL and had bone contusions along with the LCL being torn and damage to the meniscus.
Jami Hopper writes, “I immediately broke down into tears and unbelievable heartbreak, and again Kirby consoled me by telling me that he would be OK. He said he would just do the surgery again so he could get back to football next year. Jim and I have had every emotion possible about both his father and Kirby, with disbelief for both events.”
For the October 5th operation a tendon from a cadaver would be used.
As his grandfather recuperated, so did Kirby. The second time was even more difficult. Some questioned his return but he was quick to point out, “That was my brotherhood. That was my team.”
There was a 10 1⁄2 month recovery. By August, he was ready to go. He remembered, “It felt fantastic. I was cutting and running. I had been working on it all summer.”
However, what the Hopper family did not know was that the tendon from the cadaver had not attached. Instead of thriving in Kirby’s body, it had instead died. It was just a matter of time.
In the middle of August’s dry runs Kirby looked better than ever. With each carry, he was cutting harder. The knee felt incredibly solid.
Jim Hopper was at practice and observed, “I’m feeling good about what I’m seeing.”
However, on 27 Jack, Kirby made a 90 degree cut. The knee bulged sideways. It not only felt the same, the pain was identical.
For most, this would be the end of the saga. Kirby Hopper would have faded into the folk lore known as Nevada Union football. Like so many before him, he might have failed to make his mark, but would be respected for the sacrifice and passion he showed for the sport, the program, his teammates and his coaches.
He nearly became emotional when he said, “I was devastated and demoralized. I knew football was what I wanted to do. If I did not try it one more time, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.”
However, for Jim and Jami it was a different story. They could not put their son or their family through this an unimaginable third time. They felt the story might have stopped here.
They approached Kirby to have the “let’s call it a career” talk. They were exhausted and could not face another episode.
In an emotional confrontation, Kirby responded, “I’ll do this a thousand times before I quit. Don’t ever give up on me!”
He did it with such conviction and passion that they felt there was no other choice. They also felt that the saga had not experienced closure. There was something yet to prove, to achieve. Additionally, he pushed himself even harder after the surgery.
Dave Humphers weighed in, “Kirby showed a level of perseverance I am not sure I have ever seen. He is a real hard worker and is making a great contribution at running back.”
Upon his return, he molded right into the offense. He not only has improved each week, he has seen decent playing time.
On October 2 versus Natomas, Coach Humphers called for a 43R Dive, a play Kirby runs well. The ball was at the Natomas 5. As Humphers called all the players to him, Hopper got the call. It was a gaping hole. He scampered into the end zone and set off a tremendous celebration.
As his offensive players were embracing him, the entire team rushed onto the field, lifting Kirby onto their shoulders. He was carried off the field. It was a surreal moment.
He offered, “What happened this year is already worth it. I hope this will be a great year for the team and me.”
Dave Humphers leaned back in his chair and concluded, “Ten years from now he will recognize how important he was to us. He is all about the battle towards a championship for this whole community.”
Indeed, Kirby Hopper rose to the occasion in spite of terrible odds. He is a symbol of the very best in each of us, a man unwavering in his desire to finish what he began. How easy it would have been to quit. However, instead his spirit, dedication, and drive stand at the cornerstone of this program’s success.
For Hopper, each offensive series is a special gift. It brings with it three years that would have disqualified the average player. It also brings with it the realization that he must condense a four year career into one special season. Were all of these challenges a prelude to something uniquely special? Regardless, the saga of Kirby Hopper is one that will stick with Nevada Union football for years to come. Quite frankly, it is a slice of Miner Magic.
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