Bruising combination forward Mike Felton was on the bench, sporting an ice pack and bandage around his eye. Sanders was not hallucinating. Nope. This was really happening.
"If there's one kid who would play through an injury, it's Mike,'" Sanders recalled. "This kid gives it his everything and simply just doesn't quit. It was a shock to see him sitting there."
For the first time during a memorable basketball campaign, one in which the Mustangs altered the perception of a once-ailing program, Felton, competing this week as a member of the Pennsylvania Big 33 football team, was relegated to the role of spectator.
Felton absorbed an inadvertent shot to the eye on a drive with 6:29 remaining in the third quarter of the Mustangs' 59-52 YAIAA championship loss to William Penn on Feb. 16 at York College.
Tended by trainers, Felton was advised to remain on the bench. If he had to, Felton explained, he would have jumped right back into the game and battled for supremacy on the backboards. Two days later, Felton was bed-stricken. He had suffered a season-ending cracked cornea. He was forced to miss the remainder of the Mustangs' postseason.
At the start of South Western's track season, Felton was again nicked up. The sprinter tweaked a hamstring during an early-season scrimmage against York Suburban, though he fought through residual pain during ensuing dual meets.
Now Felton will play in the 55th annual Big 33 Football Classic on Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium.
"It feels good to be healthy again," Felton said, taking a break between his triple session of practices Monday at Lower Dauphin High School. "The hamstring injury was almost a freak injury. I just turned on it when I was running the 100 (-meter dash). Everything is fine now. I'm just excited for this opportunity."
Felton now finds himself flushed into a unique challenge. He's the lone safety on a roster canvassing "who's who" of the state's elite.
"I'm used to being one of the big boys, I'm used to putting coverage on some smaller guys are guys my size," Felton said. "There are some real big tight ends I'm putting coverage on, some wide bodies that I'm working hard on keeping in check and locking up on. Strong safety, it's a position that's up in the box. You've got to guard the tight ends, the slot receivers and help out on the run."
As Felton begins to describe the warmth provided by his Big 33 host family, Hummelstown's Beth and Gary Johnson, a confident voice interrupts Felton in mid-sentence.
"We're Temple's best recruiting class ever! It's something we already know. You don't even need to write it down!"
It's Nate Smith, Felton's future Temple teammate and defensive companion in the Big 33 game. Temple coach Steve Addazio tapped into the local market to reel in Smith, a highly sought-after defensive back from Archbishop Wood High in Bucks County.
"Coach Addazio was a major reason I chose Temple," said Smith, who's been tight with Felton since both players penned national letters of intent with the Owls during the winter.
Smith added, "He just kept it real with me from the very start. He didn't sugarcoat anything. He told me I'd get a chance to play, but that I've have to work hard for it and nothing was going to come easy. I embraced the challenge."
Addazio's no-nonsense style and infectious swagger also helped sell Felton.
"Coach Addazio, he'd be able to convince you that a rabbit could pull a train," Felton said.
Felton and Smith are eager to show Owls fans why Temple invested four years in each of them.
"This team has jelled from the very beginning. Establishing chemistry was an easy thing for this group," Smith said. "Now, Mike and I just want to go to work and shut (Ohio) down. We want to play that lockdown defense and hold them."
It's perhaps easier said than done. Last year, Ohio thoroughly trounced Pennsylvania, 50-14.
"Let the past be the past," Felton said.
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