When Athens receiver Nick Barga trotted onto R.Basil Rutter Field, the fans in attendance knew something special was about to transpire.
Barga lined up to the right of the field near Athens’ sideline, checked with the referee to see if he was on the line of scrimmage, then proceeded to run a short out-route against non-existent coverage and catch a pass from quarterback Clay Davis in the end zone. The play was planned and everyone —including the River Valley defense — hoped Barga caught the ball.
“I was really nervous before,” Barga said. “I just didn’t want to drop it.”
The play didn’t count on the scoreboard or toward Athens’ 55-16 blowout win Friday against River Valley, but it meant everything to an athlete who was told he probably would never play the game again.
Barga, a senior, had been sidelined since Week 5 of his junior year after breaking his leg. After he underwent surgery and completed physical therapy, Barga went into his senior year with hopes of leading a talented receiving corp and collecting offers to play football at a Division III university.
But all his hard work would be wiped away one day during summer training camp.
While practicing with the scout team kickoff squad, Barga broke the opposite leg. The injury frustrated him as he would be forced to watch his senior season from the sidelines.
“Last year when he broke it we felt we always had next year,” said Chuck Barga, Nick’s father. “We were heartbroken at the time and he was too.”
Doctors diagnosed that the leg would take a minimum of 12 weeks to heal and doubted that Barga would be able to play the way he used to. Barga — weeks before the season opener — was back at square one with limited time to return to the field.
“This year being my senior year it made it so much more emotional,” Barga said. “It motivated me to grind and get better.”
Barga worked hard and never stopped supporting his team, despite how hard it was to watch his friends live out his dream. He willed himself back onto the field, but not without the help of a strong support system.
“All my friends, family and teammates helped me get through this,” Barga said. “They pushed me to get to senior night or the last game doing everything, all for this.”
It was extra special for Barga to have his moment on senior night, he got to play on R. Basil Rutter Field for the last time and he cemented it by breaking it out with his teammates on the 50-yard line.
“We’ve played on this field for four years,” Barga said. “Its meant so much to us.”
It took months to work for a play that lasted seconds, but Barga said the experience has made him a better person - while also impressing the man who threw him the ball.
“The situation he’s been in the last two years, there’s not too many people who could get through it as easily as he did.” Davis said.
Barga is still not ready to compete, but being in the end zone again reminded him of old times.
“Once I caught it, it brought me back to before I was hurt, when I was just catching the ball and playing football again,” Barga said.