By BRETT MARSHALL
SCOTT CITY — It is 6 p.m. on a late November Tuesday, and the Scott City Beavers football team is just winding down its practice in preparation for Saturday's Class 3A state championship game in Hutchinson against Silver Lake.
As the team goes through its final defensive sets against the scout squad of Scott City reserves, standing nearby are two members of the Beavers' football squad.
Neither of them — Drake Inguanza and Cole Birney — are in uniform, but both are watching and listening as the coaches go through instructions to both the scout squad and to the first team defensive unit.
Inguanza and Birney, both earmarked for starting duties as early as last summer for the 2012 season, have been sidelined for the entire year, having sustained life-threatening injuries in separate automobile accidents just eight days apart in early June.
No donning of the blue, navy and white Scott City uniforms for these two during this magical season in which the Beavers now find themselves unbeaten at 13-0 and just one game from the school's first state title in 18 years.
For Inguanza, a stoutly-packed 6-2, 220-pounder, this was to have been his senior season where he finally cracked the starting lineup on the powerhouse Beavers' football team. He likely would have been playing both offensive tackle and defensive tackle/end.
But on June 1, at 3:30 a.m., Inguanza fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle, which veered across the road into the ditch and as he pulled back up, the car soared into the air and came to rest nearly 100 feet away. The injuries were immense — a broken fifth vertabrae in the neck, five more broken vertabrae in the back. Transported to Wichita, Inguanza underwent emergency surgery and in what can only be described as a miracle, came through it and was home less than 72 hours later.
And while he has enjoyed the Beavers' run to the state title game, every Friday brings home mixed emotions of the what might have been season.
"I never figured I'd go on and play college ball," Inguanza said Tuesday during a sit-down interview. "This has been really hard. I really liked playing football and I wanted to finish my last year. I've tried to help some of the younger guys, helping them as much as I can."
Inguanza had a plate inserted into his neck after having bone fragments loose and his quick recovery had doctors and staff at the Wichita hospital amazed.
"The recovery was much faster than anybody could have expected," Inguanza said. "I'm pretty lucky, actually."
Birney, a junior who is packed into a 5-10, 210-pound body, also came away from his accident with a bright future intact. His recovery, though, was much more difficult and the injuries longer lasting than Inguanza.
On June 9, as he was driving to Manhattan for football camp through Rush County, a vehicle ran a stop sign off a county road and slammed into the driver's side. The result was a broken wrist, a chipped knee capsule, a broken ankle and a traumatic brain injury. He spent one week in a Wichita hospital, followed by a four-week stay in Lincoln, Neb., where he underwent daily therapy.
The good news for Birney is that he has been medically cleared to play in 2013, his senior season.
"It's not been easy or fun not being able to play," Birney said of the 2012 season. "But, you've got to look at the reality and it could have been much worse. I like being around my teammates, the coaches. I try to help out with the younger linemen when I can, and I try to learn as much as I can from the coaches. At least I have something to look forward to next year, and I can't wait to get back out there on the field."
Both Inguanza and Birney said Friday has always been the tough day of the week.
"While it's exciting to see what the team's done, the hardest part is just being on the sideline knowing you can't be out there to help the team," Birney said. "Fridays are certainly harder, but I just try to tell the younger guys what to work on and help any way I can. The line has done a great job and have just gotten better all season."
For Inguanza, the playoffs have been both exciting and difficult.
"You're really glad they made it this far, but you're always wanting to be more a part of it," Inguanza said. "Game days are really tough, especially when you get this far knowing that you could have been out there. There were times where I felt I had let my teammates down."
Senior running back Dalton Buehler said the two have a special place with him, his teammates and coaches.
"They're very tough-minded people, and if something like that happened to me, I'd start breaking down and cry," Buehler said. "I'm proud of them for what they've done. If I was in their shoes, I'd want to put the pads on, too. They're part of the Scott City family. That's what we do here. We'll help them, support them and do what is needed. I'm just glad they're here and can be part of this."
Scott City head coach Glenn O'Neil echoed the sentiments of his senior running back.
"They've come regularly to our practices, and it's been nice to have them around," O'Neil said. "Both would have been impact players for us. Drake would have been a big plus on the defensive side, and Cole would have been one of the (offensive) tackles. Our depth would have been much better as a result. When you realize what they've been through, you know it hurts not being able to play. They cheer their teammates on, and they're definitely part of our football family. We're just thankful they're alive and pretty healthy."
Both say they share in the pride of what this team has accomplished thus far.
"There's a lot of tradition here, and each senior class wants to do a little better than the one before," Inguanza said. "The fact we've been able to be close and be part of this, there's a lot of good feelings for both of us."