Sports writer Brian Paglia
If there’s a way to make a memorable run through the state tournament difficult, Eagle’s Landing is doing it. The Golden Eagles have won each of their games by less than four points, gone into overtime once and trailed late in the fourth quarter of two games. And after all that, they still had No. 1 Columbia to play in the Class AAA semifinals Friday.
But if there’s a way to make a memorable run through the state tournament both irrelevant and inspirational, Eagle’s Landing has found it.
Thirty hours before Eagle’s Landing tipped off against Crisp County in the quarterfinals last week, Golden Eagles junior Eric Wortham Jr. — the Region 4-AAA Player of the Year and soul of the team — suffered a seizure during lunch at school.
For a moment, the heart of Eagle’s Landing boys basketball’s heart had stopped.
“It was about as bad as you can imagine,” Golden Eagles coach Clay Crump said.
Wortham eventually — and, perhaps, inexplicably — came home from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta on Thursday feeling fine, without a clue as to why he suddenly dropped and went into convulsions on the school cafeteria floor.
Now, this is where Crump stopped short of any win-one-for-Eric, Hollywood speeches, though the moment was ripe for one. To Crump, it would’ve been petty to attach the outcome of the game to how much the team loved Wortham.
“I knew we would play out hearts out,” Crump said, “and that would be enough for us.”
It was. Down five with 1:30 to play, Eagle’s Landing stormed back for a 68-66 victory. But players knew the game was different. For the first time in three seasons, Wortham didn’t suit up on the court.
“We just told ourselves that we were going to win it for Eric,” junior point guard Isaiah Dennis said, “that we were going to bring him back a [championship] ring, too.”
In the week following Wortham’s frightening event, teammates have felt his absence at practice.
“It’s been hard, not only without having him on the court, but just with him not being with us,” junior center Desmond Ringer said. “Eric is the one always making us laugh, always joking around with us. He’s always our answer on the court.”
Eagle’s Landing needed to find a new answer, and this is where high school boys get a chance to grow.
Some bright minds have researched human development and determined that, to a large degree, people are finished products by the age of 24. Every idiosyncrasy and habit, every flaw and strength, is melded together.
So, without Wortham, the Golden Eagles found an opportunity to meld. Marquis Griffin continued his hot shooting, making a clutch 3 down the stretch against Crisp. Jordan Sessions, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, stepped into Wortham’s spot in the starting lineup and led the team with 15 points.
“It was draining,” Crump said. “They were [at the hospital] all night. But we’ve got a strong group of kids.”
Poised and motivated, Eagle’s Landing players learned how to channel their emotions and give them purpose in an inspiring effort for all in attendance — and for one who couldn’t make it.
Wortham didn’t worry about his teammates. Indeed, he was surprised to find out they’d let a 13-point lead slip away and had to make a comeback. When Crump brought the game tape to Wortham in hospital Monday, he cringed with every mistake.
Wortham doesn’t know when he’ll be able to get back on a basketball court. He can’t wait. For a moment, when he was in the hospital, the hours of boredom felt interminable. Day after day of hospital food became unbearable.
But don’t misunderstand. From the first moments of Wortham’s recovery, he knew everything was different for him.
“It really just hit me when I was leaving the hospital,” Wortham said. “I was complaining about the food and stuff. But I see life in a whole different aspect. My life was technically gone. Not many people get a second chance at life.
“Now, I’m going to play twice as hard. I almost had [basketball] taken away from me. There were times I might’ve been lazy on the court. Now, I’m going to come out twice as hard.”
Brian Paglia covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/BrianPaglia.