Every time Tucker Slechta catches his breath after a pass play, the air tastes a little better these days. There’s a freshness that he hadn’t noticed before.
Football is back in his life, and even more important, he is back in football — as a player. And though one might think there was a time when he wondered if that might ever be so, Slechta’s determination led to this moment when he is finally catching passes again for his beloved Southlake Carroll Dragons.
“Before the injuries I kind of took football for granted,” the senior wide receiver said. “But now, knowing every play could be my last, I am never going to stop.”
That’s right, he said “injuries,” as in multiple. Actually, it’s the same injury to his anterior cruciate ligament, but it happened twice.
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The first time was in the fourth game of his sophomore season. He was returning a kick and thought he was about to score a touchdown when joy turned into tragedy.
“I hit the hole and I thought I was going to the house,” he recalled. “Then I felt someone grab my shoulder pad.”
It was a horse collar tackle. Though most of the time unintentional, it is still one of the more dangerous plays in football and can often result in injury.
After six months of rehabilitation, Slechta was ready to play football again. Fate, however, had other plans.
During a routine pass play in a summer 7-on-7 game in which players don’t even wear pads, was trying to stop to make a catch. Instead, he felt a twinge and knew immediately something was wrong — though he couldn’t imagine terrible history was repeating itself.
At the end of the tunnel was playing football, and without the support of my teammates and coaches I probably wouldn’t be playing.
Tucker Slechta, on coming back from two knee injuries in less than a year
“I thought I pulled a hamstring. There was no pain, but I felt a pop,” he said. “It was much more shocking than the first time, learning I’d injured it again.
“It was a fluke accident. I must have partially torn it a play or two before.”
Slechta thought of his junior season, which he knew instantly that he would now miss. The physical therapy he had done five times a week to come back, it was all for naught now.
“It was horrible. It was also tough on my family. They support me in everything, and they could see how much this was weighing on me,” he said.
Still, Slechta was determined to play again for the Dragons. He went through another surgery, went back to therapy, and even returned to run track this past spring, competing in the 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes.
And he also competed in 7-on-7 again this past summer.
“Track really helped, running straight strengthened me,” he said. “Spring ball and 7-on-7 gave me confidence.”
Slechta admits, though, that he relied on his coaches and teammates to help him come back.
“He’s a poster player for resilience and mental toughness,” Carroll head coach Hal Wasson said.
“If I didn’t love the game of football and my brothers I play with so much I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “They were everything. At the end of the tunnel was playing football, and without the support of my teammates and coaches I probably wouldn’t be playing.”
Slechta didn’t stay away while he was recovering. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He was at every practice when it didn’t interfere with his physical therapy. He also traveled with the team.
“I felt like an assistant coach,” he said. “It was tough not being able to play, but it was great to be with the guys.
“I want to lead this team. When I wasn’t playing, I was a student of the game.”
Wasson called Slechter a great leader.
“He’s had to deal with a lot of adversity, but kept a great attitude,” Wasson said. “Tremendous young man.”
Slechta said he knows playing in college will be a big challenge, given his injury history. He also said that’s not at the forefront of his thinking as he prepares for what he hopes will be a great senior season.
“I would like to play in college, but I’m also facing reality,” he said. “ It’s not my focus right now, but if there is an opportunity out there, I would love for it to happen.
“Who knows? If I have a fantastic season and my team does as well, someone might notice me. But for now, I’m just thrilled to be playing again.”