With just two days until the Class 4A state football championship game, Mason Hamilton checked in at the front office on his way into Thunder Basin High School.
He was greeted with a cheery, “Hey, how are you feeling?” He responded with a smile and, “It’s getting better,” before making his way into the commons area.
From there, Hamilton went straight to the trainer’s room off the main hall and plopped down to wait for his 3 p.m. appointment.
As students walked the halls after their final classes, a group of sophomore football players, including Isaiah Halliburton, gave their injured leader well wishes.
This had been the routine all week, but Thursday was different.
The senior quarterback was finally cleared to throw a football for the first time since the Bolts’ semifinal playoff win six days earlier. A day earlier, his right arm came out of a sling and he first started testing his range of motion.
Each day he made a little progress to get back on the field, but Hamilton said it was “easily” one of the most difficult weeks of his athletic life.
“I’ve had this dream of leading a team to a state championship since I was a ball boy for the Camels in second grade,” Hamilton said. “The thought of having it pulled from me in the matter of one tackle, it was almost heartbreaking.”
Hamilton was shredding the Cheyenne East defense last week in the semifinal game when the injury happened. There was just under four minutes to play in the second quarter, but he had already thrown for three touchdowns on three straight drives.
Hamilton escaped for one of his best runs of the season on Thunder Basin’s next possession. A pump fake fooled the linebacker at the line of scrimmage and a jump cut put Hamilton into open space for a big gain.
But the East free safety caught up to the quarterback at the 10-yard line. Hamilton didn’t see the hit coming and was driven into the turf — right onto his throwing shoulder.
“It happened so fast, I didn’t really know what to think,” he said. “My arm went numb right away. … Instantly, I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Of course it had to happen at the worst time of the season.’”
The crowd loved seeing their quarterback gash the East defense, but Bolts fans quickly sobered when Hamilton got to his feet. His right arm was hanging straight down at his side and he was flanked by training staff and concerned teammates.
Hamilton watched the second half from the sideline, his arm in a sling. He was afraid he had broken his collarbone and was even more concerned about the prospect of not playing in the state title game.
But he didn’t hang his head or mope. The senior quarterback worked to help his replacement, sophomore Ryan Baker, as much as he could while also rehabbing his shoulder.
“Obviously, I was upset and sad, but I knew I had to be the leader that I am,” Hamilton said. “The team looks up to me to be the one to get them going. Right after I came back on the field, I was in (Ryan’s) ear every play. I was talking to him, walking him through stuff. … I became the next coach, pretty much.”
Hamilton’s teammates hung on for a 27-21 win over the Thunderbirds. But the whole time, he was agonizing about whether he would be able to play in the title game.
Hamilton could barely sleep that night. He kept waking up to sharp pains every time he would roll onto his shoulder. It also “was rough the next couple nights,” he said.
The first time he could start moving his shoulder was the afternoon following the semifinal. That was a turning point, because it gave him hope for playing in the title game one week away.
Hamilton decided not to go to the doctor following the injury, because he wasn’t willing to risk being completely ruled out by a doctor’s order. He still didn’t know the exact extent of the injury, but one thing was certain.
“The thought of not playing kills me, so I’ve just been doing everything possible (to get back),” Hamilton said Friday. “I’m willing to do anything for my teammates. If it means I can’t lift my arm for two weeks, I’m willing to do that if it’s going to benefit our team.”
Every spare moment since the injury was dedicated to recovery. All Hamilton could manage the next day was ice and heat. He would do treatment for as long as he could bear it, take a short break, then start the process again. He also received some ultrasound treatment and was stretched out as much as possible in the trainer’s room. It wasn’t until Wednesday that Hamilton lost the sling on his arm. Then on Thursday, he was cleared to practice.
“I was seeing small progress every day, but then these last couple days I started to see a lot of progress,” Hamilton said Thursday.
When he walked onto the field in his pads and helmet in hand for practice, his teammates cheered. Hamilton only threw for a few minutes both Thursday and Friday, just to make sure it was doable.
The small workload made for a sore shoulder after practice, but Hamilton said he was bolstered by the progress.
The injury consumed Hamilton’s week. Almost every minute he was at home, he was rehabbing. Nearly every minute out in public he was asked about the process.
“It was pretty nonstop,” Hamilton said Friday. “Anywhere I went — in the halls, in the community — anyone I ran into was asking me, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ‘What’s the diagnosis?’ ‘Are you going to play?’
“It got kind of old answering 100 questions, but it’s great to know everyone has my back. … It just shows the amount of support in this community.”
Even on Friday night, less than 24 hours until kickoff, Hamilton still didn’t know whether he would play against rival Sheridan for the title. The nerves of a state championship game are something he’d never experienced before, but not knowing whether he would play added to them.
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said Friday night. “It’s that close. It’s nerve-wracking for me — the uncertainty of if I’m going to play, if (my shoulder) is going to hold up.”
After Thunder Basin’s final practice on their home turf Friday, parents, family and friends showed up to send off their Bolts. The players greeted everyone at the edge of the field and the moment overwhelmed Hamilton.
It made him think of all the support from parents and the bond he has with his teammates. It reminded him that his coaches have done “more for me than I could ever say.”
“I broke down in tears,” he said. “It’s all coming to an end in a matter of 24 hours. It’s emotion that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put into words.”
Saturday, Hamilton’s dream of leading his team onto the field at War Memorial Stadium at the University of Wyoming in Laramie came true. The 24 hours leading up the game were torture, but it was Hamilton, and not Baker, who took all the first-team reps in pregame warmups.
After almost every throw, Hamilton would rotate his right arm in a full circle, holding the collarbone area with his left hand. None of his warmup throws traveled more than 15 yards and his shoulder was clearly still bothering him.
But he was out there with his brothers, fully padded and ready as he would ever be.
Hamilton was a shadow of his normal self to start the state title game, throwing interceptions on two of his first three drives. Then he came alive to lead a spirited comeback charge.
His longest pass attempt through a quarter and a half was only about 12 yards, then he really tested the arm on a 47-yard touchdown bomb to Tanner Richards for Thunder Basin’s first touchdown. From there, the Bolts went right back to their air attack.
Hamilton finished the game with 301 yards passing, four touchdowns and those two picks, but it wasn’t enough in a 36-25 loss to Sheridan. His shoulder wasn’t healthy, but he refused to let it stop him or use it as an excuse.
“There’s no way he was 100 percent, but he came out and played for his team,” TBHS coach Trent Pikula said after the game. “With the injury he had, I didn’t think there was a shot. But he battled a lot of adversity and he came out and led his team. That’s all you can ask for.”
Hamilton finishes his high school career as a three-year starter for a program just in its third year. Win or lose, Hamilton wasn’t about to let the Bolts play for their first state title without him.