By Brian Lester
Justus Edwards laid on the field in the first half of a game against Centre in September. The sophomore defensive back was seriously injured to the point where not just his season, but his football career at Berry might be over.
Vikings quarterback Tate Adcock didn't realize just how bad the injury was at the time. The senior remembers the concern he felt the longer Edwards remained on the field.
"I thought maybe it was just a stinger, but as he continued to lay there, everyone became more concerned," Adcock said. "What helped is that he kept a good attitude the whole time and one of the Centre players led a prayer on the field."
Fast forward to nearly a month later.
It's the middle of October and Berry is on its way to Arkansas for a game against Hendrix. Their eight-hour trip includes a pit-stop in Alabama to visit teammate Justus Edwards.
Three weeks have passed since Edwards suffered a devastating spinal injury in the first half of a 38-35 overtime win against the Colonels.
Edwards, at the time, is still in a rehab facility in his hometown of Birmingham, grinding away on the road to recovery. He finally returned to his home Friday.
"It was awesome. We were able to get out and shake his hand and chat, and he was in great spirits," Adcock said. "He's really done well with this and has kept a good attitude. It was nice to see him in person for the first time since his injury."
Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski said there wasn't a player or a coach who wasn't touched by the emotional moment.
"It brought a smile and a tear to everyone's face," Kunczewski said.
This wasn't the first time the team has interacted with Edwards. Edwards has been speaking with his team every week since the injury.
Before every game, Edwards will Facetime with his teammates while they are gathered in the locker room before kickoff.
"He's become our unofficial team chaplain," Kunczewski said. "He leads the team in a prayer and gives us inspirational messages. It's a chance for us to see his face and smile."
Adcock said Edwards' pregame talk is one of the things he looks forward to most each week. Football is secondary in that respect.
"We love that he still has a place on this team. We look forward to hearing him talk every week. The whole team appreciates it," Adcock said. "He's really still a part of this team. He's still as much of a part of the team as he was before the injury."
That's part of what amazes Kunczewski the most. The fact that Edwards is dealing with an injury that would force a lot of athletes to question everything in a positive manner is impressive.
"It's quite the story. He's been an inspiration to our team because of his attitude," Kunczewski said. "He's a guy that has a very strong faith that has never wavered. It's amazing to see."
Berry has certainly ridden that inspiration to continued success.
Riding a 24-game regular-season winning streak, the 11th-ranked Vikings have already won their third consecutive conference championship and are bound for the postseason for the second year in a row.
Kunczewski said there is no question the team has been inspired by Edwards' story and his will to keep fighting, to keep pushing forward despite the cruel card he's been dealt in life.
"We have a renewed sense of purpose and are playing inspired football, not that we weren't before, but I think the injury has given us a renewed sense of purpose and outlook on not just football but life, too."
The situation has renewed faith in humanity as a whole. Support has poured in from the Berry community and from schools in and out of the conference.
Birmingham-Southern shared a video of the team doing 14 up-downs in honor of Edwards, who wears No. 14. Other schools in the SAA have shared their support via social media. Huntingdon and LaGrange have even reached out to Kunczewski expressing their support. The Centre coaching staff went to visit Edwards in the hospital the day after the injury.
"The outpouring of support from everyone says a lot about the character of people," Kunczewski said. "He's an inspiration to so many. It means a lot to have teams we are competitors with on the field show their support for one of our players."
A GoFundMe page was started shortly after the injury occurred. A goal of $2,500 was set for it. The amount raised is now approaching $21,000.
"We definitely didn't aim high enough on that," Kunczewski said with a laugh. "I can't say enough about the support."
On the field, Berry is focused on wrapping up the regular season with a road win at Trinity (Texas).
The Vikings wondered at the beginning of the year if they had built a program that could sustain success. The answer is yes and that's a credit to Berry finding a way to overcome the challenges in front of it.
No one is looking ahead. The focus is on the next game on the schedule.
"We're getting everyone's best effort every week but our guys are finding a way to win. I'm proud of them for that," Kunczewski said. "We've been able to sustain success and we aren't letting ourselves get caught looking ahead. We respect every opponent. If you look at any program with sustained success, that's how they approach it."
But as important as football is, as big of a deal as it is to be one of the nation's best teams, it's secondary to real life. Edwards' situation has painted a new perspective for everyone.
"Not a day goes by where we don't think about him," Kunczewski said. "All of us who play the game assume the risk and you hate to see it happen. But I think the Lord knew what he was doing when he chose Justus. I can't get over how he hasn't wavered on his faith at all. That's been inspiring."
Adcock said the situation has made he and his teammates appreciate everything a little more and to always keep the faith.
"On the field, it makes you realize that you never know when your season could be done. You always want to give 100 percent effort," Adcock said. "Off the field, it's taught us all to have faith. God has a plan for each and every one of us, and Justus has reminded us all of that."