Sitting out Towson's march to the Football Championship Subdivision title game has been more agonizing for Leon Kinnard than the foot injury that ended the senior wide receiver's season two months ago.
"It's more painful," Kinnard said Wednesday before the No. 7-seeded Tigers (13-2) left for Saturday's game against No. 1 seed and reigning back-to-back national champion North Dakota State (14-0) in Frisco, Texas. "I love this game. I've been playing this game since I was 7, and all of a sudden, it was taken away from me on one play. So when you're out there, you should play each play like it's your last play. You can't take anything for granted. But it definitely hurts not being out there, especially this year."
Those comments from Kinnard, who sprained a ligament in his foot in Towson's 15-9 victory over William & Mary on Nov. 16, illustrate the conflicted emotions that course through the team's injured players. Ecstatic that the Tigers are making their first appearance in the NCAA final, the players are also frustrated that they cannot take the field with their teammates.
Kinnard, a Reisterstown native and Loyola graduate, is not the only starter inactive for the team's Cinderella-tinged run to the title game. Junior wide receiver Spencer Wilkins and sophomore outside linebacker Bryton Barr have joined him on the sideline, and senior reserve running back Sterlin Phifer has been forced to watch rather than participate.
Wilkins, an Ellicott City native and Mount Hebron graduate who suffered a broken ankle in Towson's 48-32 victory over Richmond on Oct. 26, still leads the team in receiving yards (691) and is tied with senior tight end James Oboh for the team lead in touchdown catches (four).
Kinnard leads the team in receptions (43) and ranks second in yards (664). Barr, who hasn't played since tearing a pectoral muscle in the Tigers' 49-7 rout of Holy Cross on Sept. 7, tied for second on the defense in tackles as a starter in his freshman year. And Phifer averaged 5.2 yards per carry (135 yards on 26 attempts) as the top backup to junior Terrance West before sustaining a serious knee injury in the team's 32-31 loss to Delaware on Nov. 2.
Their backgrounds and experience have made taking a seat in the postseason almost unbearable.
"I'm dying to be out there," Barr said. "It definitely kills me inside, but I can't do anything about it except to get my teammates excited and just lead them, even though I'm not out there. It stinks not being out there on the field, but all I can do is smile."
Barr's stance has been echoed by his injured teammates. Wilkins acknowledged that sulking and diving into a woe-is-me attitude can be persuasive.
"I just kind of think about the future," Wilkins said when asked how he avoids falling into a depression. "When I look back, I want people to remember me as a happy person, not someone who was all down in the dumps. I want to be known as someone who was able to find some sunshine in this dark situation."
Coach Rob Ambrose said the injured players have had just as significant of a role to the program's development as their teammates who continue to participate on the field.
"These guys are a part of this," Ambrose said. "They helped build this, but the stress of not being able to actively contribute takes its toll. … These guys are all in different aspects of injuries, but they're all still here. They're all in. This family, there's no asterisks by it. We just are."
The injured players are doing what they can to help their teammates. Sophomore Arione Scott and freshman Andre Dessenberg said Kinnard and Wilkins are constantly meeting with the young, inexperienced wide receivers and sharing their knowledge of the playbook.
"We've got a lot of young receivers, and my job is to teach them," Wilkins said. "I have to stay around them, and I'm watching them, and I'm learning myself by teaching them. That's my job right now."
Senior outside linebacker Telvion Clark said Barr is a frenetic presence who motivates the linebacking corps before every game.
"He still brings a lot of energy," Clark said. "He breaks us down at the beginning, he huddles us up, then he does his chants and gets the guys going."
The off-field assistance has been supplemented by the time the injured players have spent in the film room and meeting rooms. Barr said the season-ending injury he suffered has actually helped his growth as a linebacker.
"Even though it's not over yet, it was a learning experience," he said. "I had a lot of fun. I learned the game more, I learned how to be a leader, I learned a lot of different things that I probably wouldn't have learned if I didn't get hurt."
The injured players will attend Saturday's game, prowling the sideline to offer encouragement and advice. Kinnard echoed the sentiments of the group by saying that he would like nothing more than to see his teammates win the national championship.
"We said we were going to do this at the end of last season," Kinnard said. "It would definitely send me out the right way. I'll be excited and happy even though I can't play."