Opposing coach Greg Fuhrman called the catch "sensational."
"The ball was a little behind me," said Aaron McKeegan, a Hereford High sophomore, "so I had to reach out with my right hand, stop it and pull it in just as I fell."
What happened next, a neck-jamming late hit by an unidentified Franklin linebacker, could be the reason the 15-year-old was describing "probably the best catch" of his career from a room at St. Joseph Medical Center while wearing a neck brace. It was likely the last reception he will make in organized football.
McKeegan left the hospital yesterday, two days after surgery to repair two displaced vertebrae, one fractured, in his neck. Doctors say he probably shouldn't play football anymore.
"I saw a guy coming at me out of the corner of my eye, then I felt a huge pain in my neck. I couldn't get up," McKeegan said yesterday. "The rest of my body didn't hurt, just my neck. I couldn't move it. I just felt so much pain."
After three hours of surgery on Tuesday to fuse three vertebrae, McKeegan was able to go home last night, but doctors "kept reiterating how close he was to being a quadraplegic," said John McKeegan, Aaron's father.
McKeegan's neck had to be stabilized by a brace that he is expected to wear "for at least six weeks," said his mother, Linda McKeegan.
Inside his neck, doctors used two plates to hold the fracture together. A bone graft from McKeegan's hip also was required. McKeegan was released after two one-hour therapy sessions.
"They basically got me out of bed, got me walking around and walking on my own, walking up stairs, showing me how to get in and out of the shower," McKeegan said. "The first [session] was the toughest, because I hadn't moved at all. My neck was really stiff, and it was really, really painful."
"Aaron's surgeon's very optimistic," Linda McKeegan said. "He feels that he's 100 percent corrected with his surgery. But I've told him, 'Honey, we have to get you whole and better.' It's hard for him right now."
Aaron McKeegan said he is struggling to "accept the fact that I may never play football again."
"I'm thankful that I can still walk," said McKeegan, an honor-roll student who hopes to play basketball or lacrosse at Hereford. "Maybe I can use my legs to run, have fun with my friends, even if it's not on the football field."
Though only a sophomore, McKeegan started at wide receiver and free safety, the latter a position of tremendous responsibility at Hereford.
"It's my job to make sure the ball doesn't go into the end zone, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job of that," McKeegan said. "It was explained to me that I had just as much talent as the other guys, that I should excel in this position. They thought, as I matured, I'd be just as good as them."
In the past 2 1/2 years of football, Aaron McKeegan has never experienced a loss.
McKeegan was a linebacker on an eighth-grade team in Colorado that was undefeated, and was a linebacker on the Bulls' JV team that last year went undefeated.
McKeegan, whose family moved to Maryland in 1998, was "playing safety almost like a linebacker" on this year's 4-0 varsity squad, Hereford coach Steve Turnbaugh said.
"Aaron had fantastic football instincts," Turnbaugh said. "A strong, competitive kid who loves the game."
Turnbaugh, his assistants and several players visited McKeegan Wednesday night. They gave him a football, signed by every member of the team, and have dedicated the season to McKeegan.
"Coach Turnbaugh brought this football in. That was really, really meaningful," Linda McKeegan said. "It was crouched under his arm all day. He slept with it."
A video of the play, which occurred late in the fourth quarter of Hereford's 42-14 victory Friday, shows the Franklin player charging from behind as McKeegan rises from the field after his diving catch. The player appears to loop his left arm around McKeegan's neck and grab his shoulder pads with his right hand.
As the player leaves his feet, the force of his weight -- and McKeegan's -- comes down hard as the sophomore's head hits the ground.
McKeegan was examined by the paramedic on duty, who found no apparent sign of injury. So McKeegan returned to the field.
After McKeegan, 6 feet, 165 pounds, came off the field on his own power, his mother said, "We thought he'd just got his bell rung.
"He did go back in, but he was not comfortable," she said. "Aaron was leery, but there was just a short time left, so he didn't take any risks or anything."
The severity of McKeegan's injury was not determined until Monday.
"The fact that this occurred and resulted in an injury, it's one of your worst fears in high school athletics," said Franklin athletic director Jill Myers. "I called [Hereford athletic director Mike Kalisz] on behalf of our coaches and our principal and our school to express our concerns."
Fuhrman acknowledged the play as "a late shot," and admonished the player, whose name he did not release, on the sidelines. Linda McKeegan called it "a terrific gesture for [Fuhrman] to come out on the field later to talk with Aaron and apologize."
Officials said they did not throw a flag because they did not see the play.
Ron Belinko, Baltimore County's coordinator of athletics, and Leon Jones, commissioner of Maryland's board of referees, have said they planned to review the film to see if the injury could have been prevented.
"If there's any doubt that someone is not playing within the rules, if there's any sign of unnecessary roughness, coaches should pull the players out and referees should throw the flag," Belinko said. "Any time you have a serious injury, it's a wake-up call. The outcome of the game is not as important as everyone playing a part in enforcing the rules of sportsmanship."
Pub Date: 10/01/99