MASSILLON, Ohio Austin Wilson isnt able to hear out of his right ear.
Talking, though, isnt a problem. Especially when he gets going on some of his favorite subjects his brother, his other Norwayne High School football teammates and the community that supports them.
All of the above are enjoying a month theyll never forget.
Fifteen months after having surgery to remove a non-cancerous tumor that had grown between his brain and his right ear, Wilson will take the field with those teammates Saturday as Norwayne plays for the Ohio Div. IV state championship.
A week after his surgery last August, Wilson led his teammates on to the field before a crowd a fraction that size. He had to spend his junior season watching from the sideline while he recovered, but Wilson said he embraced his role.
If I had to yell at guys who werent doing their jobs, thats what I had to do, Wilson said. Being out there on the sideline, thats where I was supposed to be. The doctors said that was part of my healing, that they wanted me out there.
They just didnt tell us that until after I was cleared to come back.
By last spring, Wilson was cleared for full participation in track-and-field season. On the football field this fall, hes been every bit the terror a 57, 160-pound defensive tackle could be expected to be, a remarkable underdog story on a team full of them.
The rural Norwayne district takes its name from its location in northern Wayne County, about 10 miles north of Wooster and 40 miles southwest of Cleveland. A school of about 450 students, it played in Ohios second-smallest football division last year and moved up to Div. IV this year. The Bobcats ran off eight blowout wins in the regular season before an upset loss forced them to share the Wayne County Athletic League title. In the second round of the state playoffs, they faced Orrville a longtime county bully which plays in a league with larger schools and a team Norwayne had never beaten in football.
That win started a string of never-befores the Bobcats are still riding. Though the school had sent individual wrestlers and runners to their respective state meets in the past, Norwayne had never been to a state final four in any team sport. The football team broke that streak in dramatic fashion, rallying to beat top-seeded Girard, 33-32, in the regional final two weekends ago.
The opponent has scored first in each of the last three weeks, but its Norwayne thats still playing.
People in town started a little parade to send us off to the game each week when the playoffs started, Norwayne coach Joe Harbour said. The parades keep getting bigger and bigger.
The sign in front of the butcher shop a half-mile north of Norwayne High School this week reads: In God we trust. The sign on the church a few hundred yards south of the school reads: Next stop state championship. Go Cats!
Maybe there really is some sort of higher power involved in a story thats a little bit Hoosiers, but Harbour credits this run to his players putting in extra work to maximize their talents and the requisite football luck that includes timely plays and staying healthy. Eight players go both ways at least some of the time, which means getting a player like Austin Wilson back has more than just inspirational value.
Austin Wilson is a triplet. His brother, John, is the teams leading tackler who doubles as an offensive guard. Austin is a backup running back, a regular at defensive tackle and a relentless but grateful utility player. Their sister, Jackie, cheers them on from the student section.
Were so thankful to have Austin back and healthy, Harbour said. Its like he hasnt missed a beat. Hes been a huge role player for us. Hes great on special teams. Hell play anywhere. Hes overcome a lot, but hes like a lot of guys on this team who just give great effort and do whatever is necessary.
Austins surgery took place on the day of the first game of 2010. John came straight from the hospital to join his teammates and play, but he said it wasnt the same that night or throughout the season.
It was like a part of me was missing out there last year, John Wilson said. Hes my other half. Putting it together this year has been great. We just go out and give it everything we have.
Both Wilsons will graduate as four-year lettermen, two of five on this current team. The primary ball-carriers are another set of brothers whose father is the high school principal. The star quarterback wears No. 45. If this team wasnt supposed to come this far, the players missed the memo.
The community, the people who come out and cheer for us, theyre a big part of it, Austin Wilson said. The way people were there for me and my family and anything we needed, it was just incredible. The whole community was in it.
When we run out (Saturday), theyre the first people Im going to look for.
Austin went through his preseason workout routine as usual in the summer of 2010 before being sidelined by what initially were dizzy spells and trouble hearing out of his right ear. He said doctors initially thought he had a really bad ear infection.
Further tests revealed a non-cancerous tumor of the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. Despite needing seven hours of surgery and a four-day hospital stay, Austin missed just two weeks of school. And he only missed one football season.
Once I got back for track, my dad was telling me I should have come back at the end of last football season, Austin joked. I know Im really lucky. Were all lucky. All of this is crazy.
Norwaynes opponent in Saturdays title game is unbeaten Kenton, a Western Ohio school with state-title experience. Kenton quarterback Maty Mauk, who will play next season at Missouri, was named Ohios Mr. Football on Wednesday. Mauk holds national high-school records for career passing yards (18,006), attempts (2,001), completions (1,287) and touchdowns (209).
As ridiculous as those numbers are, hes just as good running the ball, Harbour said. Were going to have to play our best game.
That would make five weeks running. Maybe theres some magic left.
Much of Wayne County not just the most loyal fans in the tiny towns of Creston, Burbank and Sterling will be at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium Saturday afternoon, sharing a collective knot in the stomach and tingle down the arm when the Bobcats take the field. When Norwayne went to Massillon to practice Wednesday, the first thing Harbour did was take his team into the spacious home locker room adorned with pictures of Paul Brown to get the awe factor out of the way.
Before the team started stretching, a few players climbed the bleachers to get a look from the top of the stadium.
Dude, you could fit, like, ten of our stadium in here, one player said while they stretched.
Absolutely cant wait, said another.
They wont have to much longer.
We talked like this was realistic, Harbour said. Until you do it, its somewhat pie in the sky talk. But the kids worked their butts off. They deserve this.
A family atmosphere has helped push Norwayne Football to new heights. One family in particular is especially thankful that it was able to be a part.
Truthfully, it really doesnt feel like its the state title game, and thats kind of a good thing, John Wilson said. Were not getting caught up in it. Were just having fun.
Its all or nothing, Austin Wilson said. What an amazing way to go out.