VAN ALSTYNE — Riley Sprowl will be there for his teammates this season — and he won’t let a wheelchair stop him.
Whether it’s because he wants to help coach them from the sideline, or if he just wants to let two of his best friends — quarterback Alex Phillips and receiver Kearon Redmon — know when they mess up.
“We know how to jaw each other,” Riley smirked. “That’s what we’re known for, but when it comes to game time, we get it together.”
Most people in Texomaland know Riley’s story.
How during a winter freeze last December, he met with Phillips and Redmon — all friends since childhood — and the trio took turns sliding on the ice on a cookie sheet tied to the back of a four-wheeler.
How on a turn they had taken countless times in the front yard earlier that day, he slipped off, hit a pipe fence and fractured two vertebrae that left him paralyzed.
How Van Alstyne and surrounding towns rallied around Riley and his family in the following months with fundraisers, a Run for Riley, car shows, the Riley Sprowl Classic baseball game and more.
Riley’s story even reached Washington, D.C., where Cody Whitaker, a 2003 graduate of Van Alstyne High, began delivering “Pray for Riley” bracelets in April to organizations and got former Congressman Ralph M. Hall involved.
Now he’s back with his team.
“It’s like he never left,” Phillips said. “We still jaw with each other like normal high school footballers. Only difference now is he’s on the sidelines instead of the field.”
Riley racked up 40 tackles at safety last season for the Panthers, who finished 7-5 with a trip to the area round of the playoffs. He also added two catches for 48 yards and a touchdown at receiver.
Van Alstyne head football coach Mikeal Miller said Sprowl was a part to Van Alstyne’s success last year, and he will be again this season.
“We’re approaching it, and Riley’s approaching it like this is his senior year of football,” Miller said. “His role has changed because of what happened, but he’s still part of it and he has a role.”
Riley is giving his all to the team, this time by holding his teammates accountable — and they agree that he has made the transition look easy.
Instead of making adjustments on the field, Riley has been giving advice to players and motivating them from the sidelines throughout summer workouts and the Panthers’ two scrimmages.
But he also points out mistakes and makes corrections like a coach.
“If you mess up, you can see him wheel over as fast as he can to let you know,” Redmon laughed.
So what does he say when he gets there?
“Some people will start slacking and he’ll just get on them, he’s like, ‘pick it up, let’s go, quit being lazy,’” Phillips said.
“He’ll say ‘it’s not that hot out here, quit walking around, you don’t need any water breaks, put your helmet on,’” Redmon added. “He knows we need to be tough to win.”
Van Alstyne plays its season opener tomorrow at Quinlan Ford.
Riley will be there.
Van Alstyne opens District 5-3A — which has five playoff teams from last year, including a regional finalist and three area qualifiers — on Oct. 10 at Whitesboro.
Riley will be there, too.
He plans on being at every game to support his teammates — especially his two best friends, Phillips and Redmon — as they were there for him after the accident.
“Knowing he wasn’t going to play baseball or football anymore, he’s one of my best friends and I just had to be there for him,” Redmon said of the accident. “The first couple of weeks, I don’t know if we (Redmon and Phillips) even came to school because we went to see him so much.”
Barring any last-minute illnesses, Riley wants to be at every Van Alstyne football game this year.
It was something he thought was out of the question after getting a mucus plug in the first months following the accident that made it nearly impossible to breathe.
But two days later, he made huge progress.
“I was taking a bath and I moved my right arm. Another day later I moved my left arm,” Riley said. “It’s pretty amazing how God works. You can think you’re at the lowest point in your life and he’s going to keep you going. At that moment, I knew I was going to be all right.”
His mom, Karla, posts updates on a “Pray for Riley” Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pray4riley) and ways those interested can help Riley. Most of the posts document Riley’s progress — often referring to the little things making big differences and using the hashtag “#HEWILL” — to make it possible for him to be with the team this season.
One pictured showed Riley on his elbows, struggling to lift his head.
Early last week, he lifted his hands to hug his older sister, Sydney, goodbye before she returned to attend University of Mary Hardin-Baylor for the fall.
During last week’s home scrimmage against Melissa, Riley scratched the side of his head after the Cardinals got a big pass play down the middle of the field.
After all the progress he’s made, Riley said he wants the Panthers to show the same effort this year that he did.
“Just work hard, play like it’s your last. Anything can happen,” Riley said. “One minute you can be 17, all-district, going into baseball and the next, you can be done.”