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Holloway: Espinoza down, but not out
Johnson High’s Gilberto Espinoza celebrates a fumble recovery during a win over Gainesville during his freshmen year. - photo by Times file photo

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Game of the Week: Gainesville ready for televised tussle with Wolverines

Week 6 previews

This week’s predictions:

Georgia over LSU: Neither team has been overwhelming, but the No. 4 Tigers could be the most overrated team in the country.

Georgia Tech over Mississippi State: Maybe not as one-sided as last year (38-0), but the Jackets should win.

Commerce over Athens Academy: The Tigers take the inside track to homefield advantage in the playoffs.

Buford over Avondale: Evenly matched in records, not on the roster.

Chestatee over Lumpkin County: War Eagles averaging 330 yards per game against teams not ranked No. 1 in the state.

Creekview over Johnson: Humbled Grizzlies get back on track.

East Jackson over Banks County: Too much Eagles offense.

Fannin County over Union County: Both teams can score plenty. Rebels get the edge on defense.

Jefferson over Riverside: Nobody’s figured out how to stop the Dragons yet.

Hart County over Jackson County: The Panther defense might keep them in it, but the Bulldogs are too talented to lose.

Habersham Central over Madison County: Could be another nailbiter for the Raiders.

Oglethorpe County over Dawson County: Tigers got a win last week, but need more consistency on offense.

Hebron Christian over Towns County: The Lions have improved tremendously since last year’s 50-point loss.

North Hall over White County: Trojans not ready to give up subregion crown quite yet.

Gainesville over West Forsyth: Possibly a tough challenge for the Red Elephants, but not tough enough.

Flowery Branch over West Hall: Falcons scoring 50 points per game in last two weeks.

Last week: 13-5.

Season: 63-19.

On Thursday morning, Gilberto Espinoza is right where he expected to be.

In the Johnson High School weight room, the linebacker moves from station to station, pushing up iron in time with his teammates while coach Paul Friel calls out the cadence in a first-period weight training class.

He skips the lower body workouts — the first sign something’s not right.

Moving through the halls afterward, there’s no hint of the damage to his right knee. Second period English, third period Computer Education, everything looks as planned. No crutches, no brace, no limp, just the casual stride of a senior.

He’s a big man on the Johnson campus, a status earned through three seasons of Friday night glory and an affable personality. He burst onto the Hall County football scene as a freshman in 2006. In the Knights’ improbable win over Gainesville that year, he recovered a fumble and had his picture displayed on the front page of the local paper, celebrating with a passion he became known for. He finished that season as a first-team All-Region performer — a rarity for a ninth grader.

Everything was set in motion for what was sure to be an exceptional high school football career. He followed up with All-Region honors as a sophomore, and was solid as junior, despite injury issues that led to offseason shoulder surgery.

But he rehabbed from that and came back feeling stronger than ever, ready to set everything right in his final year as a Knight.

“I had all these goals for my senior year: All-State, 120 tackles,” Espinoza said. “I’ve probably never worked as hard as I did this whole offseason to come back from the surgery on my shoulder. I knew as soon as I could get back into it, I was going to hit the weight room harder, run harder, run extra. In the summer, I would come in the morning and run an extra mile or two; just all the extra stuff I could do.”

But halfway through his senior season, instead of goals, Espinoza is left with memories.

His high school career is finished, because just days into preseason practice, something went wrong.

“It was the weirdest thing, because he just made a cut and rolled his knee — didn’t get hit or anything,” Friel said. “He thought it was nothing, but it wouldn’t go away. He went to the doctor and they said it was a sprain and possibly a meniscus tear. So he stayed off of it, didn’t play in the scrimmage, and then came back for the (season-opening) North Hall game.

“One series, and it was done.”

That’s all the senior season Espinoza got. One measly series. Months of rehab and anticipation all leading up to one series and three tackles. And then it was done.

When the MRI results proved the worst — a season-ending ACL tear — Espinoza wasn’t crushed. He’d feared the worst since the initial injury in two-a-days. He’d been through the mental anguish. He’d already mourned what would be lost. Now he’s ready to get on with next week’s surgery and the rehab to follow.

But he hasn’t moved on from his team. Throughout the week, he’s at practice every day.

“He’ll help out with anything: drills, coaching up guys on the sideline, he’ll jump up in the tower and film,” Friel said. “He’ll do whatever he needs to do. He still wants to be a part of it.”

Fridays are troublesome, though.

Espinoza was the team’s heart, soul, and vocal leader. Now he’s relegated to the role of peer-coach, lending his knowledge to the players taking his place.

He’s still a team captain, though Friel said he’s chosen to bestow his duties on a teammate he feels deserves the honor the last two weeks.

“I try to stay away from the middle of it,” Espinoza said. “It’s really emotional for me.

“I know we’re having a pretty rough year, but I’d give anything to be out there. If we’re winning by 50 or losing by 50, I want to be out there with my teammates. We spend so much time together. I spend more time with my teammates than I end up spending with my family. So they are my family. My teammates are like brothers, the coaches are like parents.

“It’s bad for me to be sitting there when my friend gets hurt and gets carried off the field or something and then can’t even barely walk the next morning. I would love to be able to be there with him, saying ‘dude, I can’t even move either.’”

When asked if football is still a part of his plans for the future, Espinoza answers with a “Yes” as quickly and clearly as he once read a fullback dive, and he’s pursuing the opportunity to play as doggedly as he once chased down a tailback sweep.

Colleges aren’t necessarily hot for 5-foot-11 linebackers coming off crippling knee surgeries, and Espinoza knows that. But he’s undaunted.

“I feel like (the colleges that were pursuing me) have backed off a little bit, so what I’ve got to do is e-mail them more, put myself out there more,” he said. “We’re making copies of my film and sending it out there more. I’ve just got to be more involved with it, because I’ve still got proof that I can help your team. If they need to see me, if I need to do a showcase, I would more than love to show that I can still help their team out.

“You can send me to South Dakota, I don’t care. I just want to play football.”

If anybody deserves the chance to play, it’s Espinoza.

Here’s hoping that somehow, some way, somewhere, he gets it.

Brent Holloway is The Times sports editor. Contact him at

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