Shannon Stewart faced two options when he shredded his left knee during the Mount Union football team's playoff opener last month.
The Elmwood graduate could postpone surgery, wear a clunky custom brace and play through what would be the most searing pain of his life.
Or, worse, he could sit.
"Not to sound corny or anything," said Stewart, who tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus, "but it would hurt me more standing on the sideline not being able to contribute in my street clothes than playing with a few tears."
He may have had a decision to make his first three seasons, but not this year.
On Friday night, the tight end will be back on the field for a second straight week as he and his senior teammates attempt to capture a final, elusive honor.
The past three seasons, the Purple Raiders won every game but the last one, falling annually to Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl. Now, they are back in the championship game for the eighth straight year, with one more chance to extend one of the more remarkable streaks in college football.
When top-ranked Mount Union (14-0) faces No. 3 St. Thomas (Minn.) College (14-0) at 7 p.m. Friday in Salem, Va., its seniors aim to become the program’s 20th straight class to leave school with a national title. The Purple Raiders have won 10 championships under 27th-year coach Larry Kehres between 1993 and 2008, the rings never coming more than three years apart.
“With our senior class being the first class in 20 years to not have a championship yet, there’s a sense of urgency,” Stewart said in a phone interview this week. “This year, it was very clear for us that the goal wasn't to go 10-0 in the regular season, it wasn't to make it to the Stagg Bowl, it was to win the Stagg Bowl and we're going to do whatever it takes to get it done.”
If that includes playing on one good leg, so be it.
Stewart said he is “at a loss for words” in describing the bonds forged over this shared ambition, especially among the seniors — a class that includes a deep-rooted connection to Northwest Ohio.
Stewart is among three area seniors to earn Ohio Athletic Conference honors this fall. He and Mac Knisley, a center from Perrysburg, received first-team recognition while Blair Skilliter, a two-way standout from Genoa who rushed for 631 yards and 13 touchdowns on 105 carries, was named to the second team as a defensive back. Sophomore receiver Luc Meacham from Central Catholic and sophomore defensive end Corey Jones from Northwood also contributed this season.
Mount Union’s purpose was clear last week in a 48-35 semifinal victory over No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas). Trailing 28-14 at halftime — their first deficit at the half of a non-title game since 2005 — the Purple Raiders set of on an eleventh-hour rally. A 2-yard touchdown run by Skilliter evened the game at 35 with less than four minutes remaining before senior running back Jake Simon punched in the game-winning score from 12 yards with 12 seconds left. Mount Union also added another touchdown with a fumble return on the ensuing kickoff.
The celebration afterward, however, was tempered. All the victory meant, Skilliter said, is "we’re one step closer to our goal."
A goal they will pursue with help from an unlikely source.
When Stewart tore up his knee last month, he figured his breakout senior year — and career — was over. The injury required reconstructive surgery that would have sidelined him for at least six months. Still, on a prayer, he asked the question.
"Is there any way I can play through this?" Stewart said to the team’s trainer.
"It's going to hurt like hell, but people have done it," he recalled the trainer replying.
Stewart needed to hear no more. Surgery was pushed back until after Christmas break, and he eyed a return for last week’s semifinals. Somehow, he did, laboring through the raw afternoon and contributing two catches.
For Stewart and Mount Union, there was work to be done still.
"We have something special here, especially with my class," Stewart said. "For me to sit out after all the hard work that we've put in, it just wan't an option."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.