CHANNAHON — Minooka senior Justin Shepard still gets headaches these days, but they are no more severe than the occasional headaches he has gotten throughout his life.
A few months ago, Shepard's head pain was more severe than he might expect from the worst migraine. He sustained a concussion, a fractured skull and some bleeding due to an accident during a backyard football game in early October.
When Minooka struggled in its first few events of the boys bowling season, and Shepard was sidelined and supposed to be out for several weeks, he had no idea that, by late January, he would lead the Indians to the state tournament.
Shepard and some friends were playing two-hand touch football in a backyard field surrounded by some rather firm enclosures.
"The side of a house is on one side of the field," Shepard said. "There's a sidewalk on the left side, and then another sidewalk that crisscrosses with it by the end zone."
The opportunity to make a big play presented itself, and Shepard did not pass it up.
"I was a wide receiver and I dove for a ball," he said. "I guess we were so close to a touchdown that I forgot where I was. I dove and lurched forward ... and landed on the concrete (sidewalk)."
Shepard knows what happened next only through what others have told him.
"Apparently I was conscious, but I don't remember anything. I was brought into my friend's house and an ambulance was called to take me to the hospital. I was able to talk and stuff, I guess, but until the ambulance actually got there, I don't remember anything. It was about 10 minutes that I just have no memory of," Shepard said.
"I guess it's a good thing that I don't remember any of that. Their neighbors were two houses down when it happened, and they said they could hear the sound from my head hitting clear as day.
"I guess I did make the catch, though."
The ambulance took Shepard to Provena St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, where he stayed for three days. He was then released, but he experienced migraine headaches so severe that he had to go back for another three-day stay.
Returning to action
A bowler since he was 7 years old, Shepard had been looking forward to his senior season with the Indians when the injury occurred. The initial diagnosis called for him to miss much of the year.
"They said I would be out until December. Our season starts early, in October (Minooka's first scheduled match was Nov. 6), and that meant I'd miss like half of it," Shepard said. "It got really frustrating knowing I wouldn't be able to return until December or even early January."
Instead, Shepard had a visit with a neurologist in early November, and he was allowed to return much earlier than expected.
"I had the appointment anyway, but I knew I was feeling better, and I ended up being physically cleared that day," Shepard said. "I was glad to be back. Bowling is what I love to do, and not being able to bowl my senior year was tough."
To that point in the season, the Indians did not look like a team on track for state. They placed fifth in their first tournament of the season — the Lake Park Invitational. Coach Derrick Rapsky says that since Shepard returned, they have yet to finish lower than second anywhere.
"Without him, we didn't get off to the best start. He missed just a couple of matches, and our scores weren't close to where they have been lately," Rapsky said. "Since we got him back in the lineup, we've taken off."
Shepard is averaging about 212 pins per game on the season. He just bowled a 1,238 at last weekend's Plainfield North Sectional, and was second individually at the Southwest Prairie Conference Tournament with a 1,347 earlier this month.
Scores do not necessarily matter as much to Shepard now as they did in the past, however.
"I always had a problem with my attitude when I'm bowling. I'd let bad frames and bad games get to me and wouldn't handle them real well," Shepard said. "Now, I'm doing a better job of taking it one frame at a time and not letting things like that bother me as much."