Jace Whatley is preparing himself for the possibility he has strapped on shoulder pads at Ozark for the final time.
The senior tight end enters his fourth week facing an idle Friday night, following a Week One trip to Carl Junction in which he suffered a partially torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee.
“If I'm not back for football, I'll be back better for basketball,” Whatley said when asked if he thinks he can return this football season. “I'm going back (for a doctor’s appointment) in a few weeks to see what is going on. I'm going to be back for basketball.”
He and his family were informed they could bypass surgery in favor of letting the ligament heal on its own. They have chosen for him not to have surgery.
“Surgery would put me out months,” Whatley said. “It’s not the best situation, but I'm trying to make the most of it. It could have been way worse. I’m thankful it's not completely torn.”
Whatley’s football career has been riddled with medical hardships. He missed three games as a junior a year ago due to a collarbone injury and missed one game his sophomore season due to an issue with a knee.
Whatley looks back on the play that he suffered his latest injury and realizes there is nothing different he could have done. After making a customary catch for his sixth reception on the night, he was tackled by two defenders, one hitting him in his upper body and the other hitting him at the knees.
“I was wrapped up in a tackle and was going down,” he said. “A kid below me twisted my foot and spun my whole leg around and I felt it pop. I got up for the next play, got in my receiver stance and my back leg started shaking. I couldn't control it. That started freaking me out. I took off running and I could feel it wobbling.”
The 6-foot-6, 195-pound Whatley, who last season collected 17 catches for 244 yards, along with 26.5 tackles, had developed into Ozark’s top college prospect. Among colleges who have shown interest in him are Kansas, Missouri Southern, Ball State (Indiana), Pitt State (Kansas), Benedictine (Kansas) and Western Illinois.
He’s been encouraged college coaches haven’t discontinued conversations with him due to his injury.
“I've had a few check up on me to see how things are going,” he said.
As for his mental state, Whatley is making a point not to dwell on his predicament and do his best to keep his spirits up.
“It is what it is. You can't change the past,” he said. “You’ve got to move forward. Right now, I'm bulking. I'm trying to gain weight — get a protein shake and some potato chips in my hands and start eating. I ain't got nothing else to do.”