by: Todd Holcomb Updated:
WARNER ROBINS, Ga. - Ja-Que’ Billingsley once said he would be the first amputee to play in the NFL.
For now, the senior noseguard from Northside High School in Warner Robins will celebrate the achievement of Friday night, when he will take the field as a key contributor for one of the state’s top football programs in its season-opening game against Flowery Branch.
“I’m ready to show out,’’ Billingsley said. “I’m ready to get a couple of sacks. I want to show my talents.’’
Some doubted that Billingsley would play football again nearly three years ago when he injured his right leg in a wrestling accident that severed an artery. Billingsley’s leg was amputated just below the knee six weeks later, in January of 2011, when attempts to save the limb failed.
Billingsley’s game Friday won’t be his first at the varsity level – he played in a handful of games last season in mop-up roles – but he says he finally feels like his old self on a football field.
“Spring football is when everything just clicked,’’ Billingsley said. “I was getting off blocks. I was in the backfield making plays.’’
A full return to football is the latest success in what’s been a remarkable past year. As a junior, Billingsley led the Houston County Sharks to state championships in football, handball and basketball in the Georgia High School Association’s adaptive sports program.
This summer, on a tip from his trainer, Billingsley traveled to Rochester, Minn., for the National Junior Disability Championships and surprised himself, setting a meet record when he bench pressed 413 pounds. He also won the shot put and discus. At 17, he’s now considered top prospect for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Back home, Billingsley set Northside team records in the bench press and incline. Northside is a football powerhouse riding a state-record streak of 15 10-victory seasons.
“He’s a wall basically,’’ said Thomas Archie, a Northside center assigned to block the 5-foot-11, 307-pound Billingsley at practice. ‘’I know he has only one leg, but he’s a big dude, and he’s very strong. He’ll be good on short yardage because you’re not going to be able to move him by yourself.’’
It’s the happy ending that his parents were almost afraid to dream about when the accident occurred.
“Ja-Que’ (pronounced juh-KWEE) always said he was coming back,’’ said his mother, Cynthia. “When we figured out he would have an amputation, we did research and saw kids still playing sports. We began to have hope. His thing was that it wasn’t going to limit him. He said he’d be first amputee in the NFL.’’
His attitude was pivotal.
“People like being around him, always positive, laughing, cutting up,’’ Northside coach Kevin Kinsler said. ‘’When his accident happened, we were concerned that his attitude and personality would be affected, but it’s turned out to be a great asset for him. He came right back with the same big smile.’’
But Billingsley’s father, Earl Billingsley, says his son’s success would be short-changed if people didn’t know the struggle behind the smile.
Football was Ja-Que’s first love. His father was a college running back, and his older brother was a star at noseguard for Northside when Ja-Que’ was injured. Ja-Que’ was brought up to the varsity late in his freshman season and was expected to take his brother’s place as a starter, perhaps as a sophomore.
But the accident – a larger wrestling teammate fell on his leg while sparring – was devastating. The ligaments in Billingsley’s right knee were torn. He has required 16 surgeries. Billingsley missed most of his freshman and sophomore years of classes at Northside under medical care. He was in a wheelchair much of that time because of various complications.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is the spiritual pain that he was going through,’’ his father, Earl Billingsley, said. “His friends were supportive and sympathetic, but they could go on with their lives and their dreams. Ja-Que’ felt like he was at a standstill. He felt like a misfit.’’
Billingsley was the only amputee at his school. He had his friends, but he wasn’t as comfortable with strangers.
“Imagine being in a classroom when he’s supposed to be studying,’’ his father said. “The focus is gone because people are looking at him, asking him about it every day when he’s trying to move on. People didn’t realize that it made him remember the situation over and over.’’
Sports was lifesaver. Billingsley credits the visits he received from other amputee athletes at hospitals. He is not Northside’s first amputee to play football. Billingsley has met Tommy Gray, a double leg amputee who was a member of Northside’s 2006 state championship team.
Billingsley also credits his faith. “My main motto is that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’’ he said.
The symbolism of Friday’s game and a return to his favorite sport is not lost on him or his family.
“Even though he played last year, this is really special,’’ his father said. “He will contribute. Just to see him get back on the field and do what he truly loves is an awesome achievement.’’
Ja-Que’ said it took him about two years to get fully comfortable competing with a prosthetic leg. Now he’s ready to shine. He might write a book.
“I want to tell other people to never give up, believe in yourself,’’ Ja-Que’ said. “Whatever you’re dealing with, it’s just a minor setback for a major comeback.’’