As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, and the football team from St. Edward High School in Cleveland secured their 45-35 victory over Wayne High School (Huber Heights) in the Division I state championship game, junior linebacker Mitch O'Hara beamed.
"Winning state was probably one of the best experiences ever," O'Hara says.
To casual onlookers, O'Hara was just another St. Ed's player celebrating the school's second state championship in as many years. They didn't know that, only a year earlier, sidelined by a knee injury that cost him the entirety of his sophomore season, O'Hara watched as a spectator while his Eagles teammates won the first of their back-to-back Ohio titles.
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"It was bittersweet," O'Hara says. "I was a part of that journey, but I didn't get to play."
Before suffering the injury, O'Hara was an odds-on favorite to win a starting job. Then in a drill during summer two-a-days, O'Hara felt something pop in his left knee. Though shaken, he continued to practice, not wanting to lose his place with the first team.
"I was repping with the ones that day, so I was like, 'I'm not going to come out,'" O'Hara says. "I tried to keep going on it for, like, three weeks. I had no clue that I actually tore my ACL."
When the pain didn't abate, O'Hara saw a doctor who informed him that he'd torn both his ACL and the meniscus in his left leg.
"I was upset and mad because I worked so hard that off-season," O'Hara says. "When I was given the news, it was terrible. But I felt bad for myself for, like, five minutes, and then I started thinking about my recovery."
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The rehab process tested O'Hara's mental fortitude. He spent many hours training at T3 Performance in Avon, gradually building himself back to form by pushing through tough exercises like Single-Leg Squats, Skater Jumps and Broad Jumps. Within seven months, he was cleared to begin football activities like running, cutting and linebacker drills. He was cleared to return to full-contact practice just in time for two-a-days ahead of the 2015 season.
On the first day of hitting, O'Hara quieted any worries people may have had about the strength of his left leg with a huge hit.
"It was me against a running back," O'Hara says. "I was kind of nervous going into it, but I hit him and brought him down, and it got everybody crazy and psyched."
That collision also gave O'Hara the certainty he needed. He says, "I was like, 'Wow, I can trust in this. I don't have to think about it any more.'"
O'Hara channeled that confidence into strong performances on the field. After regaining his starting spot at outside linebacker, he recorded 32 solo tackles and assisted on 44 more. He also brought down a big interception against Mainland High School, a Florida school whose quarterback, Denzel Houston, had been attracting interest from big time programs like Auburn, Florida State and Louisville.
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"It was a pass play, and I rerouted the receiver and dropped into coverage," O'Hara recalls. "[Houston] started to scramble and threw the ball, but I picked it off. I ran it back about 20 yards before I got tackled. I felt really good because the crowd was crazy and it was kind of an unbelievable feeling."
St. Ed's went 9-1 during the regular season, then they really caught fire in the Division I playoffs. Their average margin of victory in five playoff games was 22.6 points.
Next season, O'Hara wants to help lead the Eagles to their third straight state title. He says the injury he suffered as a sophomore taught him a lot about his body and how to make it work at the highest level.
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"If you treat your body like a temple, it will benefit you so much more," O'Hara says. "Stretch after every workout. Go see physical therapists for dry needling, massages and all that. I feel like that gives you a huge advantage."
As a senior, O'Hara wants to average 15 tackles per game and nab five interceptions during the season. After what he's already overcome, who says he can't?