First of all, I prayed. I just tried not to overthink things, and just show up to practice everyday. —Moses Niumatalolo
LEHI — The Skyridge players call it the captain’s curse.
But their coach believes it might be one of the most valuable lessons his senior captains can take from their high school experience.
“We talk a lot about it,” said Skyridge head coach Jon Lehman of the injuries that changed the season that three of his six senior captains thought they’d experience. “Everybody has a role. Your job is to maximize your effectiveness in your role. From myself, to the other coaches on our staff, to our players and the captains, we each have to find a way to maximize that role. For Josh (Hadfield) and Moses (Niumatalolo), they had an initial role they thought they’d play, and then the question was, ‘Can they learn to adjust to a new role?’ It’s a great lesson for young men to learn, especially at this age.”
It might be one of the most difficult adjustments to make — regardless of age — to change an expectation, a goal or a desire because of something beyond their control.
For Hadfield, the disappointment came in the first game of the season. The running back and outside linebacker had been among the most committed in the offseason, hoping to help carry his team to the 5A championship. He and his teammates will realize that dream on Friday at 6:30 p.m. when they face their cross-town rivals, Lehi.
But, instead of leading the Falcons ground assault, Hadfield stands on the sideline, a sort of teenage coach offering insight and inspiration to players with whom he’s grown up playing.
“It was definitely hard for me at first,” Hadfield said. “But I worked with coach Lehman a lot and talked about my new role, sort of defining my role as a captain.”
Lehman said Hadfield’s biggest adjustment came in seeing value in something other than his physical abilities.
“He felt like his contribution to the team was production on the field, and, at the time, it was,” Lehman said. “He felt that was all he brought to the table. After he got injured, he felt like he didn’t bring anything to the table anymore.”
The conversations between the two were finding new ways to contribute to the team’s success.
“He’d worked really hard in the offseason, and he had his sights set on a good football season for himself and the team. It was almost like going through a mourning process, and then once he put those expectations to bed, he created new ones. After a couple weeks, he could see what he could do for the team.”
For Niumatalolo, the season has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster as he dealt with a number of injuries, the last of which was an ACL tear that ended his high school football career.
Lehman said in some ways, the uncertainty of Niumatalolo’s situation made it more difficult for him to adjust to any reality.
“His first injury was during Week 5, so he still had his sights set on coming back, and he continued to lead,” Lehman said. “Then he suffered a new injury two weeks later, and that’s when we knew for sure, he wouldn’t be coming back from the injury.”
Niumatalolo said that prayer and the support of his teammates helped him adjust to the reality that his football season would end with him on the sideline.
“First of all, I prayed,” he said. “I just tried not to overthink things, and just show up to practice everyday. Everyone on this team kind of helped me throughout this whole year. They gave me positive, you know, things, so it’s just being out there with the boys. That was really helpful.”
He and his teammates sometimes wondered ‘Why me?’ but Niumatalolo didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on why some players are fortunate and others are not.
“I feel like I’m contributing in any way I can,” he said. “I believe things happen for a reason. Most of us don’t know why they happen; they just do. But for me, it just happened to me, in order for me to become a better person, a stronger person and a better football player. That’s how I look at it. So in that case, I see it as a blessing in disguise.”
Palmer’s situation is different from Niumatalolo’s and Hadfield’s. While he was asked to change positions — twice — and then missed a few games due to a broken finger, he has been able to play in the playoffs and will be on the field this Friday. He worked all summer thinking he’d be the starting slot receiver, but a transfer caused coaches to move him to running back. He didn’t start until starter Ma’a Notoa, a junior, went down with a season-ending injury against Viewmont.
“At first, I was a little disappointed,” he said. “I was excited to play slot, but then I kind of accepted my role on the team — how can I make my team better and, like, how can I fit in?”
He said it was his affection for his teammates and his desire to see the team succeed that helped ease any disappointment he felt personally.
“He’s one of the best leaders, one of the best football players I’ve ever been around in my entire career,” Lehman said. “He always makes the right play. He’s very smart and incredibly talented, but his mental makeup is what’s super impressive.”
After taking over the starting role, Palmer broke his finger, and, while doctors cleared him with it in a cast, he was also warned that reinjuring it could mean surgery and the end of his season. So for three games, he suited up but didn’t play.
“That’s a hard thing for a guy to do, prepare all week, but then not play,” Lehman said. “Especially for a guy who’s been on the field all the time. That’s who he’s been.”
While his physical skill has helped the team in countless ways as coaches and players adjust constantly to the inevitable injuries of football, it’s his leadership and attitude that have helped the team most. Every time Lehman looked down the sideline, he saw Palmer pumping up or helping out his teammates.
“The kid is just a special leader,” Lehman said. “He really does care more about the team than he does himself.”
All of the players said they look forward to Friday’s championship game, and, facing guys they grew up with, played little league with and are still friends with makes it intriguing.
For most of them, Lehi is just another team standing between them and a lifelong dream. Some say it will be fun to play against guys they once played alongside.
Regardless of who is on the other side of the ball, Palmer said, his inspiration comes from the Falcons’ sideline.
“When I come off the field and look at the sideline, and it’s like third and long or we need to make a stop, I’ll see Moses and Josh out there, and they’re just cheering and like making sure everyone is OK on the sideline. It makes me feel confident because we have leadership on the team on and off the field.”