|Tommy Bluj refused to let his latest injury keep him down.
Susquehanna athletics photo
By Andrew Lovell
Quarterback Nick Crusco dropped back, spotted wide receiver Tommy Bluj running a vertical route, and let it fly.
Bluj made the 27-yard catch on Susquehanna's first play from scrimmage to immediately push the River Hawks just across midfield, but was tackled from behind by a Franklin and Marshall defensive back. The speed and angle of the tackle drove Bluj's right knee into the field -- hard.
The senior wideout's knee throbbed in pain; that'll happen when the weight of two bodies lands directly on top of it. Bluj was able to walk to the sideline under his own power, which he thought was a good sign. After a normal series of tests, Bluj was fitted with a knee brace and re-entered the game. He wasn't about to miss a home game in his final season of competitive football.
Bluj finished the day with game-highs of nine receptions for 114 yards, though Susquehanna's comeback attempt fell short in a 27-24 loss to its Centennial Conference foe.
From the outside looking in, Bluj seemed fine. Better than fine, actually, given his impressive on-field production. But once the adrenaline wore off, Bluj couldn't ignore what his body was telling him.
"I didn't think anything of it until that coming week when I tried running routes," Bluj said. "It started really hurting me."
A knee specialist conducted an MRI on Bluj's injured knee and the results confirmed his worst fears: the tackle had done more damage than previously thought. The test revealed a partially torn PCL, damage to the posterolateral corner, and fluid buildup over the peroneal nerve. In short, Bluj's knee was a mess and his collegiate football career hung in the balance.
The damage wasn't definitively season-ending, but it wasn't going to be a quick or painless comeback, either. Bluj and his head coach Tom Perkovich were gutted.
"It's always hard to see a guy lose a large portion of his senior year, especially one of your best players, a guy who's one of your absolute hardest workers [and] does everything you want him to do on and off the field the right way," Perkovich said. "He's handled it incredibly well, but it's difficult as a coach to watch a guy like that go through that."
The specialist told Bluj the injury was unlikely to get worse, so his return to the field would become a matter of pain management.
"He said, 'As soon as you can run and cut again, you can play,'" Bluj said. "That kept me optimistic, for sure."
Bluj suffered the injury on Sept. 23 and has not seen game action since, but Perkovich said the team is "cautiously optimistic" that will change with the River Hawks' Senior Day home game this Saturday against McDaniel. For the last six weeks, Bluj has led, watched, and supported his teammates during dozens of practices and four games from the sideline, in between sessions with the team's training staff ranging from light therapy and ultrasounds to electric stimulation and stretching. He's ready to play again.
"Words can't describe how important this is to me," Bluj said. "Just being able to go to war at least two more times with my teammates, it means all the world. Ever since I was playing flag football in first grade up until now, football's been a huge part of my life and it's shaped me into the man I am today."
That man is reflected in his four-year journey at Susquehanna. The knee injury is just the latest obstacle Bluj has overcome with the River Hawks. As a freshman, a severe concussion ended his season in the team's fifth game.
"I know what the risks of playing football are," Bluj said. "I knew I only had, at that time, three years left. I wasn't going to let anything stop me from playing."
Bluj returned healthy in his sophomore season, only to struggle to find a place within the new head coach's system.
"He had a tough start, I'm not going to lie," Perkovich said. "My first year, he just couldn't get right. He just couldn't get things going and understand what we were trying to do. We tried to find a couple different roles for him, but he had a really tough sophomore year."
Rather than back down, Bluj embraced the challenge. As a junior, he cemented himself as the team's top receiver out of the slot and put together a breakout season (57 receptions, 590 yards, two touchdowns) en route to being named second-team all-Centennial Conference. Bluj was on pace for an equally, if not more productive, season as a senior before the injury, but instead set his focus to further mentoring young receivers, sophomore Mikah Christian and freshman Terrell Brown.
|Bluj has remained a strong leader despite being sidelined for four games.
Photo courtesy Susquehanna Athletics
Of course, helping others is another one of Bluj's strengths. The senior is one of 146 nominees across Divisions I, II and III for the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team, which honors "dedication to volunteerism and enriching the lives of others," according to the association's official website.
Bluj is actively involved with a number of community service initiatives, including the Toys for Tots Foundation, local food drives, and field days at local schools, among others. He's also taken two service trips to the Appalachian region of West Virginia through his hometown Catholic church to help renovate homes of poverty-stricken families.
"These experiences, there's something about them," Bluj said. "It's just giving back. It's just a great feeling. The learnings that I've got from these experiences, how I've been humbled, are just things that I try to apply to my everyday life."
Bluj, an ecology major and avid outdoorsman, interned with Susquehanna University's Freshwater Research Initiative and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission last summer and hopes to embark on a fishery-related career after he graduates.
Perkovich is effusive in his praise of Bluj, whom he favorably compared to the Energizer Bunny. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound Bluj possesses great hands and elite speed, but his greatest attribute is his work ethic.
"From a coaching standpoint, he's just one of the best and easiest kids to coach," Perkovich said. "That's one of the things that, as a coach, you just love to have."
"He should have no regrets in his career. Injuries happen, but he should have no regrets. He's one of the best kids I've had the pleasure of coaching."
Setting the stage in the ODAC
With two weeks left in the regular season, few conference races are as tight as the ODAC.
Three teams -- Washington and Lee (6-2, 3-1), Shenandoah (6-2, 3-1) and Hampden-Sydney (5-3, 3-1) -- are tied atop the conference standings, which makes things interesting enough. But here's the best part: Shenandoah still has to play Hampden-Sydney (Saturday) and Washington and Lee (Nov. 11) in its final two games.
Randolph-Macon and Guilford both sit one game back in the conference standings, but already have losses to Shenandoah and Washington and Lee, and Hampden-Sydney, respectively.
This is likely to remain a three-team race as the calendar flips to November.
Red-hot Huntingdon controls USA South
Vic Jerald rushed for 78 yards and two touchdowns, Chip Taylor passed for 228 yards, rushed for 67 yards and accounted for two TDs, and Huntingdon's defense held Greensboro to just seven points and 128 yards of offense in a 52-7 rout.
The win marked the seventh straight for the Hawks since a season-opening non-conference defeat against Guilford. Huntingdon continues to control its own destiny in the USA South race.
In fact, the Hawks can clinch the USA South title and a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance with a win Saturday against Methodist (1-7, 1-4). Should the Monarchs pull the upset, Huntingdon would still be in a position to clinch next weekend against LaGrange (4-4, 3-2).
David Tammaro passed for 306 yards and two touchdowns, Tyler Messinger rushed for two scores (including the go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter, and Lance Hammond and Anthony Davidson each tallied a pair of sacks in Johns Hopkins' 31-24 win over Muhlenberg. Ryan Curtiss caught 11 passes for 159 yards and two of Michael Hnatkowsky's three TD passes in the loss. ... Alec Cobb passed for 448 yards and three touchdowns, and Major Morgan and Cam Johnson both topped 200 yards receiving as Hampden-Sydney defeated Emory and Henry 38-30. ... Cole Westberry converted all four of his field-goal attempts, including one from 47 yards, and Averett's defense forced three turnovers in a 12-7 win over Maryville. ... Tanner Erisman passed for 291 yards and three touchdowns, all three of which went to K.J. Pretty, in Franklin and Marshall's 36-14 victory against Moravian. ... Josh Breece rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 38 seconds remaining in regulation, to clinch Washington and Lee's 17-14 win against Randolph-Macon. ... Stacey Gardner rushed for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Heath Hidlay intercepted a pair of passes in Ursinus' 28-21 win against McDaniel. ... Brian Mann ran for 232 yards and a touchdown, and Dre Davis caught seven passes for 124 yards and the game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes left in regulation as Ferrum defeated Methodist 19-14. ... Matt Lehr rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown, and Austin Montgomery accounted for four total touchdowns as Juniata routed Dickinson 38-14. ... Karsten Miller passed for 429 yards and four touchdowns, and De'Eric Bell rushed for 98 yards and two touchdowns in Guilford's 49-23 win against Bridgewater. ... O'Shay Carter passed for 499 yards and five touchdowns in Brevard's epic 58-42 shootout win over N.C. Wesleyan. Brandon Thompson passed for 314 yards and five touchdowns in the defeat. ... Hayden Bauserman passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns, while Cory Bell added three rushing touchdowns in Shenandoah's 50-15 win over Apprentice.
Top 25: Johns Hopkins moves up
Johns Hopkins climbed one spot to No. 23 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll following its win against Muhlenberg.
USA South leader Huntingdon also received votes. No other Centennial, ODAC, or USA South teams received votes this week.
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