Liam Dallas pulls his shirt down at his shoulder to reveal an angry looking scar. Four or five inches long, it was made when a doctor cut into him to fix a broken collar bone last year.
It is the most visible of the many war wounds the hard-charging teenager has acquired during years of minor and school sports, and it is by far the most significant.
This scar, and the titanium plate that now lies beneath it, represent the time Liam almost walked away from the thing he loves most.
The 16 year old flashes back to the football field in September, suiting up for GW Graham’s junior varsity squad in a game against the Handsworth Royals. He was set up on the right side of the Grizzly D as a running back came out of the backfield on a pass pattern.
As the Handsworth quarterback delivered the ball to his back, Dallas came up to deliver a crunching hit. As he did, he fell to the ground and landed squarely on his shoulder.
The impact sent a jolt of pain through him, and he knew something was wrong.
“Your whole body goes fuzzy, like the static of a TV,” Liam said, trying to explain the feeling of a collarbone break. “And when I sat up and realized what I’d done, then it was really, really painful.
“It was a lot worse than the first time I broke it.”
Yes, he’s done it before.
If you ask Liam to recite his injury history, you’ll get a list a mile long.
Enough stitches to stretch from here to Abbotsford.
A few broken fingers.
A few broken toes.
A broken ankle.
A broken nose.
A torn meniscus and partial tear of the ACL and MCL in his right knee and a nearly full tear of the meniscus plus a strained MCL in his left knee.
That plus the collarbone that he broke the first time in another football game at GW Graham when he was in Grade 8.
It’s a wonder he’s not rolling around in one of those motorized scooters by now, but it’s the price he’s always been willing to pay for playing the way he plays, walking that fine line between fearless and reckless.
He never hesitated to hurl himself into tackles.
Hit first and ask about that stabbing pain later.
But this time was different.
For the first time, as Liam sat up in his hospital bed, he wondered if the joy he got from playing sports was worth being on a first name basis with doctors and nurses, and being able to walk the corridors of Chilliwack General Hospital blindfolded.
Maybe it was the morphine that kept him dopey for about a week, but Liam was emotional.
“When I first got to the hospital, I still had my pads on and I had a lot of time to just sit there and think, and most of the thoughts were, ‘I don’t want to come back. I don’t want to do this again,” he said. “I came really, really close to walking away.”
Athletes are like that.
Professional players who suffer serious injury and face a long rehab road are often emotional in the moment, talking retirement.
For Liam, two voices in his head waged a fierce war for two weeks.
“You’ve been hurt so many times,” one voice said. “Why come back just to get hurt again?”
“You’ve played sports your entire life,” the other voice countered. “Do you really think you can just cut that out?”
For a while, the first voice was winning, and Liam felt something he didn’t expect.
But that was slowly replaced by another feeling.
“At first it was like, ‘No, I have to stop doing this to myself,’” he said. “But then it was, ‘Yes, but I have fun doing this. My life is sports.’
“And now that I’ve got a plate in here, I can’t break it again, so that takes one breakable bone out of the picture.”
That leaves just 205.
Liam plays rugby too (of course he does), and on March 15 he took to the field for GW Graham in a home game against DW Poppy.
While he’d practiced with the Grizzlies in the lead up to the season opener, he hadn’t faced ‘live bullets’ since breaking the collarbone.
Stand on the sideline of a rugby game one day, close your eyes and just listen to the sounds.
It is not a game for the timid, and if you’re scared of getting hurt you’re better off just about anywhere else.
You’d think after all that he’s endured, Liam would be gun-shy, worried about what’s going to break next.
But he wasn’t.
“I honestly wasn’t thinking about anything injury related,” he insists. “I was just thinking, ‘First game of the season! Let’s go win!’
“Pregame. Postgame. I don’t know why I wasn’t thinking about it, but I wasn’t.”
He didn’t change his style either.
No taking different angles into tackles to protect his shoulder or hesitating at the point of contact.
Liam played that game with the same fearless, reckless, whatever-happens-happens style he’s always employed, and it felt great.
From being on the verge of giving up sports altogether, Liam is back to the point where he’s not just continuing to play, but he’s making plans for a rugby/football future.
On May 26 he’ll play in the Alberta/B.C. Border Bowl in Kelowna, a showcase game for some of the best young talent in Western Canada.
Liam hopes to get a college education paid for through football, and maybe play professionally in the NFL or CFL. High level rugby is also on the table, and if all else fails he’ll ‘settle’ for a degree in civil engineering.
He has taken every hit imaginable and he is still going strong with a plan to succeed.
Don’t bet against him.