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Jace Connor taking new role for Seahawks after accident

Jace Connor, a senior at Ethan High School, shows his scar from the surgery that repaired his broken back. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 3
Jace Connor, a senior at Ethan High School, poses for a portrait at the Ethan football field Monday afternoon. Conner was the quarterback and safety for the team before breaking his back. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 3
Jace Connor, a senior at Ethan High School, kneels behind the Ethan/Bridgewater football team during practice Monday afternoon. Conner was the quarterback and safety for the team before breaking his back.3 / 3

ETHAN -- Two months ago, Jace Connor envisioned Friday night football games from the 50-yard line, taking snaps and throwing game-winning touchdowns.

Now he's living those visions, but from the sidelines with a back brace on. The Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan two-year starting quarterback won't play this season because of a major injury to his back.

On July 27, Connor was working at Ethan Co-op Lumber stacking columns -- 6-foot, 1,000-pound cement blocks -- when one fell from the top of the stack onto his back.

"I knew something was wrong because I couldn't stand up straight," the senior said, "but I didn't think it'd be this bad."

Connor was ambulanced to Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell, then moved to Sioux Falls later that day.

"That's when I found out I needed surgery," said Connor, who was operated on in less than 24 hours after the accident.

He fractured his S1 and L5 -- vertebrae at the bottom of a the spine -- which were fused together during a 2 1/2-hour surgery. Connor also fractured his L3 and L4, which were left alone to heal on their own.

He was walking several hours after the procedure and is on a three to four-month recovery. Connor added when learning he'd need surgery, one thing came to mind.

" ... That's when I thought about sports," said Connor, who added returning for football season is out of the question but he has a slight chance to play basketball late in the season, depending what the doctors say at next month's appointment. "That's when it really hit me.

"It was hard and it's still hard every day, but it's getting easier I guess. Before this I was a big sports fan and I loved playing. I still do, but life's more important than just sports now."

This football season, Connor -- a team captain -- hasn't missed a game. He hasn't missed a practice.

"Losing Jace and his leadership on the field was a big concern of mine, and thank God that first of all he's walking, and secondly, he's out here doing this," Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan head coach Jeff VanLeur said. "The first three practices with him being around and talking to the kids made a big difference.

"He was our leader out here the last couple of years and is a kid that our team's looked up to. He's a poised kid and has been very positive for us. The kids know what he's missing out on, so they're working for him just as much."

Connor said his new, more vocal role has been a challenge to get used to but he wants to help the Seahawks in any way he can. He's another coach on the sidelines and has helped guide Blake Bartscher -- who was moved from wide receiver to quarterback in his senior season.

"(Connor) has helped me with the footwork and with the mechanics of throwing since I'm not used to it," Bartscher said. "He helps get us going and a lot of us are playing for him."

Bartscher has worked and made Connor proud leading the Seahawks to a 2-0 start, ending Canistota's 37-game win streak Friday for the team's second win.

In Connor's career, he led the Seahawks to a Class 9AA state championship in 2011. He was 33-of-55 in passing for 759 yards, 15 touchdowns and had four interceptions. On the ground, he had 101 carries for 758 yards and 19 touchdowns.

With the productivity Connor has had on the field in the past two years, sitting out must be tough. Not being directly under the lights on Fridays has led him to a different light.

"I think about everything I still have and am able to do," he said. "The fact that I'm still here is still kind of amazing. A lot of people tell me that."

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.