Johnson quarterback Anthony Prophet scrambled out of the pocket after a busted pass play, and Flowery Branch senior linebacker Cory Sanderson instinctively ran toward him.
Sanderson reached Prophet, wrapped him up and was making the tackle when he was kneed in the side of his head by a teammate, snapping his neck just enough that by the time he hit the ground, his entire body was numb.
“I was laying there thinking that hopefully I didn’t break anything,” Sanderson said. “I didn’t want to let my teammates down. I knew we had big games coming up as well as the rest of that game to play, and I wanted to be out there.”
Teammates, trainers and coaches rushed to Sanderson as he lay motionless on the field at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
“I know a few of the guys came up when I was on the ground to check on me,” Sander said. “I definitely remember center Austin Todd being there.”
Seconds went by, then minutes with no movement. His father Richard Sanderson and Flowery Branch Touchdown Club president Andy Todd came out of the stands and walked across the field to see about a son, Flowery Branch’s defensive bell cow and team captain.
“You don’t even think about football when something like that happens,” Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw said. “Things get put in perspective really fast.”
With his helmet and pads still on, Sanderson’s neck was stabilized, strapped down, loaded onto a backboard, then a gurney, and he was taken across the field to a waiting ambulence.
“I was praying that nothing was seriously wrong,” Sanderson said. “But I’ll tell you something, being in full pads on that gurney and then in the hospital while they were running tests was really uncomfortable.”
By the time Sanderson was in the ambulance, he had regained feeling.
By the time he walked out of the hospital at 3 a.m. Saturday morning, roughly six hours after his injury, he was diagnosed with a nerve injury commonly known as a “stinger,” and with a herniated disc.
To his teammate’s relief, it didn’t take the full three hours for them to get word of Sanderson’s condition.
“Any time you lose a defensive leader and team captain like Cory, you’re going to take a hit,” Shaw said.
And the Falcons did, playing out of sync for the better part of four possessions before getting word that he had feeling in his extremities and was moving.
“There was so much relief on the sidelines after we got the message (via a phone call) that he was alright,” Shaw said. “Play picked back up immediately once his team knew that he was good and we went on to win.”
Even with the worst over, however, Sanderson’s prognosis wasn’t completely clear in that he didn’t know if, or when, he would be returning to the football field.
“I didn’t want to risk being paralyzed or having a neck problem that would stick around,” Sanderson said. “At the same time though, I was motivated to get back out there and help the team as best as I could.”
Sanderson didn’t practice the week following his injury, nor did he dress for the Falcons game against West Hall the following week.
With a game against Hall County rival North Hall on the horizon, however, Sanderson knew he had to come back and be fearless in doing so.
Therefore, 10 days after praying that his neck wasn’t broken while being carted off the football field on a gurney, Sanderson suited up for practice.
“I told him that first day he was back at practice that it was time to get back on the horse,” Shaw said. “I told him to be what he was.
“I knew that if he came back tentative, that’s when he was going to get hurt worse.”
So Sanderson practiced that week leading up to the North Hall game with the same fervor that led his teammates to name him captain at the beginning of the season.
As a result, he was ready to play that Friday night against North Hall with little-to-no residual mental effects, evidenced by his 10 tackles in the game.
“I was a little nervous and hesitant,” Sanderson said. “Especially the first time I went to make a tackle (in the North Hall game). That team has some big boys and I was nervous.
“But after that first hit, any fear went away and it was just about playing football.”
Shaw knew better than to expect any less.
“Coming back fearlessly is a hard thing to do,” Shaw said. “But there’s a reason he was chosen captain and it’s not just because he’s a good football player.
“He has a lot of those intangibles, and there’s too much passion for the game in him and in the way he plays for him not to have come back strong.”