Haverford’s James McWilliams has lost much of his high school career to knee injuries, but he was determined to play as a senior. When the Fords
Haverford's James McWilliams has lost much of his high school career to knee injuries, but he was determined to play as a senior. When the Fords renew their annual rivalry with Upper Darby Thursday morning, it will be the first time McWilliams will be playing football on Thanksgiving Day since suiting up for St. Dorothy in its annual Turkey Day game with St. Bernadette in 2009. (Julia Wilkinson)

HAVERFORD — There's so much Haverford High senior James McWilliams can be thankful for today.

Family and friends? Of course.

Finally staying healthy for an entire football season? You bet.

"Freshman year, I tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus,' McWilliams said. "I came back not even a year later. It was from Oct. 4, 2010 to Sept. 10, 2011. Then, in my sophomore year, I tore the same knee again, same ligaments. In my junior year, I had to sit out because of the injuries. Then I was advised not to play this year.'

Furthering his education and having the chance to play a sport at the collegiate level is McWilliams' top priority. Ultimately, it was a motivating factor in convincing himself to give football another go when the odds were stacked against him.

"My parents were against it,' said McWilliams, whose father, Steve, was a standout football player in the 1970s at Monsignor Bonner. "I couldn't sit back another fall and watch football, I couldn't take it anymore. That team was unbelievable last year, so I missed out on all of that and how much fun those guys were having. I had to come back this year, to get some closure, and because I always wanted to go to West Point (United States Military Academy). I was talking to West Point and the Merchant Marine Academy I was actually just medically disqualified from West Point (earlier this week). If I can get a waiver from my coaches, either for baseball or football, they'll throw out the medical examination so I can get in. But I really need football to get me in there.'

You can detect the frustration in McWilliams' tone. There's nothing he can do now to get back those three lost years, but despite going against the advice of doctors, McWilliams returned and has been healthy throughout his senior season, save for one scare against Penncrest in September that kept him out of the starting lineup on offense until late-October. He's played every game on defense, though.

McWilliams has been through so much physical and emotional trauma and realizes he's on borrowed time.

"I'm glad I am here. I'm a baseball player, too, so we'll see where that can get me,' McWilliams said. "Originally, in my freshman year, I had some colleges looking at me, and they talked to (Haverford football coach Joe Gallagher) about me. By my junior year, they didn't realize I had gotten injured again sophomore year. That was the year they were really going to start looking at me again, but I told them I wouldn't be playing. So, they decided to look at me a little bit this year when they knew I had decided to play again.'

And here he is, set to play in his first Turkey Day game with rival Upper Darby at A.G. Cornog Field. McWilliams tries not to get caught up in the "what- if' game. When he decided to return, basically on a whim, he knew it was a huge risk. McWilliams, once a promising running back, has started at linebacker for the Fords this season, and developed into one of Gallagher's most reliable and productive players on the defensive side of the ball, while contributing on offense in a limited role. McWilliams caught two touchdown passes in his first game at wide receiver in the Fords' come-from-behind victory over Ridley last month.

"Every time I step onto the field, I think about (the injuries) and that it could happen again,' he said. "Running back was my position, and that's where I was going to have a future in, but (All-Delco Kevin Leyden) took over last year when I was on the sideline. I was rotating with Leyden at running back my sophomore year before I blew my knee out against Penncrest. I was having a good game, too.

"Basically, there's not enough bone cartilage in my knee anymore. The surgeries were so close together, I don't have enough cartilage in my knee to hold it all together, so that's why the doctors advised me not to play again this year.'

Two weeks prior to summer camp, McWilliams made the decision. After contemplating for months, he knew that if he didn't come out for the team his senior year, he would regret it for as long as he lives.

"So I gave Gal a call and told him that I think I'm going to make a comeback, see what I can do with it and see if I can get some closure with it,' McWilliams said. "I wasn't weight-training or doing any conditioning. I came out really raw and picked it back up. I knew I had to show them I could do it, especially as a receiver. I remember my sophomore year coming back and I didn't really have the lateral movement that I used to. They knew I could definitely play defense, but offense I was definitely questioned whether or not I could do it.

"I definitely play with a chip on my shoulder. I don't know. I had the spotlight on me my freshman and sophomore years, people had big expectations, and then you're just forgotten about. Every time I play sports now ... I play with a chip on my shoulder. I was rehabbing for two years while everyone else was playing. Last year, it should have been me, (All-Delco quarterback Eddie) Durkin, Kev, (fullback Alex) Drum. At least on the defensive side of the ball, I could have been a difference.'

This year, he has made a difference, and now he gets to suit up for his first rivalry game this morning. Make no mistake, McWilliams will cherish every second.

"I can't wait,' he said. "My last Thanksgiving game was with St. Dot's in 2009, when we played St. Bernie's every year. My mom can't stand to watch it anymore, but just being back is awesome. I never thought I would be able to play again.'

♦♦♦

Upper Darby-Haverford is longest-running Thanksgiving rivalry in Delco, and this year's matchup has the potential to be special. Today will be the 92nd installment, as the Fords (7-3) vie for their third consecutive win against the Royals (8-3).

Haverford narrowly missed out on a District One Class AAAA playoff berth, but is 7-1 after beginning the year with two consecutive defeats. Top players to watch on offense are running back/athlete Jai Thornton — who is the team's best big-play threat — running back Chris Lyons, fullback Alex Drum and quarterback Jack Donaghy. In the team's last two games, Thornton accumulated 302 rushing yards, his most productive two-game stretch of the year, carrying the ball.

Upper Darby enjoyed one of its best seasons in the last 15 years, winning seven consecutive games en route to a district playoff berth. Leading the way is quarterback Chris Rossiter, who enters his final scholastic game with 23 touchdowns and needs seven points to become the Royals' all-time, single-season points leader, trailing All-Delco Simoni Marco Lawrence, who scored 180 points in 2005.

Upper Darby leads the Turkey Day series, 45-40-6. Last year, Haverford claimed a 26-7 decision.