SMYRNA — What stuck with Eli Hutchinson is the way his body felt, just before the football was snapped.
“I just remember my heart beating,” said the Smyrna High linebacker. “I was like, ‘This is it.’ I’ve got to do it for my seniors. … they’ve been through so much.”
And then, in the next instant, Hutchinson was crashing into the Salesianum backfield, grabbing the Sals’ star running back, Colby Reeder, around his shoulders and bringing him to the ground so abruptly that it seemed to surprise the 10,000 people in Delaware Stadium.
In that instant Hutchinson felt both ecstasy and agony.
The junior had dislocated his right shoulder on the hit. But he had also just won a Division I state championship for the Eagles.
His memorable tackle stopped Sallies on a fourth-and-goal from the one in overtime. The Smyrna fans erupted in celebration, realizing their team just won its first football state title, 32-26.
“I remember the contact — I heard a ‘pop,’” Hutchinson said with a laugh. “I was so happy I got him down with one hit.”
Josh Hutchinson, Eli’s twin brother, was on the sidelines. He didn’t even realize it was Eli who made the play until he saw video of it on the ride home.
“I was on my knees, praying,” said Josh. “It got real quiet and then everything went crazy.”
That tackle was clearly the biggest moment of Eli Hutchinson’s high school football playing career.
He had no way of knowing it that day, but it was also the last one.
A rollercoaster ride
To say that the Hutchinson brothers have been through a lot the last two years would be selling their story short.
Last September, Josh Hutchinson had to be taken from the Baynard Stadium turf on a stretcher, his brain bruised and his football career possibly over.
All his brother, Eli, could do was watch in horror.
Then, this past September, it was Josh’s turn to look on after Eli blew out his left knee in a preseason scrimmage at Middletown.
“At first I thought, he’s fine, he’s fine,” said Josh. “But then I noticed, as he tried to move, he couldn’t put weight on his leg. I figured, maybe in a few weeks he’ll be back.”
But it was bad. Hutchinson had torn both his ACL and MCL, ending his senior season before it even began.
“He took it pretty hard for the first few weeks,” said Josh. “I just kept reminding him and Coach (Mike) Judy kept reminding him, ‘Don’t lose hope. There’s always something you can do.’”
In three seasons on Smyrna’s varsity, the timing has never seemed to be right for the Hutchinson twins. One of them always seemed to be injured.
But, the way Eli sees it, they’ll still end their high school careers together on Saturday, when the second-seeded Eagles face top-seeded Middletown for the Division I state crown on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Delaware Stadium.
Josh will be out on the field as one of the leaders of Smyrna’s defense. Eli will just have to make his contributions from the sidelines.
Josh’s scary injury
Josh Hutchinson still doesn’t know exactly how he suffered his head injury.
He doesn’t remember most of what happened after he got hurt in Smyrna’s 76-56 loss at Salesianum on Sept. 25, 2015.
“When I watched it on film, it’s just a pile,” said Josh. “I went into a pile and that’s pretty much it.”
The twins’ parents had to calm down Eli so he could finish the game after Josh was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
Being twins, the two brothers have always been close.
“We do everything together,” Eli said with a smile. “Like I can’t get away from the guy. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more a day away from him in our entire lives.”
When Josh got hurt, Eli knew it more than just a small injury.
“I felt like, man, I just lost him,” said Eli. “He’s really been having a great game so I don’t know how the rest of this game will go.
“It’s tough because I automatically knew it was a serious injury. I didn’t know how bad it would be but I knew it was bad because (the trainer) had told me he’s going to be all right. But they put him on a stretcher and took him out of the game.
“That was a really tough moment for me.”
Over the next few weeks, doctors told Josh he should consider not playing football any more.
But then he started getting better, faster than he was supposed to. Doctors decided Josh could return to the field — but with a sensor in his helmet that records how much force he’s taken to his head.
If it reaches a certain level, Smyrna’s trainer pulls him out of the game.
Josh returned in time for the state tournament, playing sparingly in the Eagles’ Division I quarterfinal win over Mt. Pleasant.
Then, the next week, the Hutchinson twins played probably their best game together in Smyrna’s 30-13 comeback win over William Penn in the semifinals.
Eli remembers how happy he was to have his brother back, playing beside him.
“It felt like. … I don’t want to say it like this, but it felt like I lost somebody — like somebody had passed away — and came back,” said
Eli. “That’s what it felt like.”
Finding a way to contribute
The funny thing about Eli’s knee injury in the Middletown scrimmage was that it didn’t really hurt at first.
There wasn’t any contact on the play.
“I got up and tried to start walking,” said Hutchinson. “It just wasn’t stable. … Right away, I was like, this is not good. A knee should never feel like this.”
“He was pretty devastated,” said Judy. “I think the mental toll that it takes on a kid — on anybody — is probably greater than the physical pain.”
But anybody who doubts that an injured player can still impact a team, should have been on the Smyrna sidelines at Sussex Central on Oct. 22.
With the Eagles trailing, 14-0, in the fourth quarter, it was Eli who lit a fire under his teammates.
Smyrna rallied to win, 22-14, and eventually finished the regular season undefeated.
“He was the one who kicked everybody in the butt that day,” said Josh. “He told me, ‘Pick it up, you’ve got to do something.’ He was in everybody’s face that day.”
“This team, we developed as a family,” said Eli. “I don’t think we were a family from the beginning, like last year’s team. But we turned into a family as we went through this season.
“Coach Judy said it was something that we needed,” Eli said about the Central comeback. “That’s really the point, I think, where we became a family.”
Finishing it out together
Eli Hutchinson doesn’t consider himself a hero for that game-saving tackle he made in last year’s state finals.
But he does know it’s a play that people will remember.
“Every now and then, you walk into a McDonald’s and they’re like, ‘There’s the guy who made the tackle,’” said Josh. “I know any time he comes in here, around school everybody knows it.”
“I get reminded about it every other week,” said Eli. “It’s something that’s going to be in history forever at Smyrna High School. I’m proud to be part of that team last year. I can’t take anything away from those guys who played with me. Everybody was an integral part of the team.”
As for it being the final play of his high school career, technically it was.
Eli doesn’t look at it that way, though.
He feels like he’s still part of this squad, still his brother’s teammate.
While the twins still dream of playing college football together somewhere, Eli sees Saturday’s state title game as their last Smyrna game together.
“I’m still a player,” said Eli. “I’ve still got that heart-racing mindset, even if I’m standing on the sidelines. I’m still in the game. I’m just as ecstatic when a big play happens, just as mad when a bad play happens.
“My last play is when their last play ends. We’re all in it — everybody on the sidelines, the fans — we’re all in the game. So my last play is when this season ends and I’m no longer a Smyrna Eagle. But I’ll always remember the times I was.”
Reach sports editor Andy Walter at firstname.lastname@example.org