ELIZABETHTON — In tremendous pain, Zach Moore lay on the ground thinking his high school football career was over.
But he wasn't thinking only about himself.
“I just wanted to stay strong for the team,” said Moore.
Three weeks after suffering a serious elbow injury, Moore intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown to help Elizabethton defeat Johnson County in the first round of the Class 3A football playoffs Friday.
Such an impressive comeback is just part of Moore's maturity as a person, and his ability to overcome adversity.
“He wanted to get back on the field and be with his teammates,” said Cyclones' head coach Shawn Witten. “He has been a spectacular leader, and his teammates have rallied behind him. He's an unselfish player with great character.”
Moore was injured late in the game in the regular season win over Johnson County. The running back was trying to battle for a few extra yards when a Longhorns' player caught him by the foot. Moore landed full force on his extended right arm.
“I looked at it, and I thought my arm was broke in half,” said Moore. “I told (teammate) Ian Glover, 'I think I broke my arm,' ” said Moore. “I showed it to him, and it freaked him out. He hollered at the coaches and told them my arm was broken. I just said the Lord's prayer. (Trainer) Justin Smith asked if I was going to pass out. He said, 'You're a little too calm.' ”
The 6-foot, 175-pound senior held back the emotions until he got into the car with his dad. Then he broke down, thinking his season was certainly over.
On the ride to the hospital, Moore said the pain became excruciating. His dad grabbed Moore's hand, and turned the volume up on the radio broadcast of the Cyclones' game. Moore wouldn't go into the hospital until the game was over.
As it turned out, Moore didn't suffer a broken arm but rather a dislocated elbow. He was placed under conscious sedation as doctors tried to pop the elbow back in place. Unfortunately, Moore was fighting them, so he had to be put all the way under.
While the rest of his schoolmates enjoyed fall break, Moore spent a week in a blur of pain medication.
“I don't remember much about it,” said Moore. “I couldn't sleep at all, and I didn't have an appetite.”
He came off the pain medication prior to the season finale against Sullivan East. Watching practice that week, Moore said, was as bad as the injury.
“Everybody was getting better, and I was miserable watching them have fun,” he said. “It inspired me to get back out there.”
Physical therapy at Smith's office was a big part of the comeback process.
“They did an amazing job,” said Moore. “They busted my butt, and had me doing pushups. I got about two. It was two and tears.”
One blessing for the right-handed Moore was his habit of carrying the football in his left hand, which he developed in order to use his right hand for stiff-arm moves.
When the playoffs arrived, Moore was in a brace and ready to roll.
“It was real emotional to be back on the field,” said Moore.
Overcoming the pain and making such a quick recovery is probably not that surprising for Moore, who began the year as a comeback project of sorts. Last year was like a disaster wrapped around a neat package of bad days.
His uncle passed away, and his mom and dad got a divorce. Coming off a good sophomore season in football, Moore didn't exactly take things in stride his junior year.
“It took him out of football mentally,” said Witten. “I don't think his head was in the right place. He didn't want to do the things we asked him to do.”
Four years earlier, Moore had been uprooted from family and friends as he moved from San Diego to Tennessee.
“I thought we were going to move down the street or something,” said Moore. “Then I thought we were going to move to Wyoming. One day I came home and our bags were packed, and they said we were moving to Tennessee.”
So there were plenty of reasons for Moore to fail. But team chaplain Mike Koruschak and Witten helped keep that from happening.
“Since I was a freshman, preacher Mike has been there behind me,” said Moore. “He prays with me before every game. He has been an important part of my life. He's a great guy.
“He didn't even know all of the stuff I had been going through until I told him. He was just there to pray with me. He has shown me a lot about religion.
“And Coach Witten is more like a father figure than a coach. People don't understand that about him. I wasn't going to come back to football, but everything I went through was for the best.”
Moore didn't play on offense in the playoff game, sticking only to free safety. But there's a possibility of returning to running back in Friday's second-round contest at home against Gatlinurg-Pittman.
“I've been getting the (offensive) reps in practice,” said Moore, who said he hopes to get a shot at college football and has drawn interest from Maryville and Tusculum. “I'm not sure about how it will go during the game.”
Moore leads the Cyclones in yards per carry, getting 10.4 a pop while totaling 469 yards on 45 attempts and adding five scores. He is also the team's leading receiver with 11 catches for 88 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I had just planned on playing safety this year because Terrence (Turner) and Ethan (Thomas) are such great running backs,” said Moore. “But coach put me in there.”
Defensively he has 31 tackles, five interceptions, and a fumble recovery. He is the team's punter, averaging 34.2 yards on 18 kicks. Also, Moore has totaled 121 yards on six kick returns.
Moore said the Cyclones have to remain locked in on the task ahead in order to go deep into the playoffs.
“The No. 1 thing is we can't lose our focus,” said Moore. “We can't take any team for granted.
“(Linebacker) Luke Blanton does a great job of getting everybody fired up, and when something good happens it's contagious. Just like last week, Markus (Olds) got an interception and scored, then I got an interception for a pick six, and then Markus got another one. It's contagious.”