The Washington Township senior leader injured his knee 10 plays into the season. He’s endured adversity off the field, too.
As the final seconds came off the clock on the lopsided scoreboard at McAleer Stadium in Voorhees, in a game when Washington Township High School’s football team hung in for longer than that scoreboard would suggest, the kid with the jersey but no pads continued to patrol the sideline.
Joe McKillop found a teammate that had just come off the field, patted him on the shoulder, and complimented him on a play.
“I’ve been trying to be more of a coach, that way when I’m on the field I can help them out in some way,” McKillop said after his team’s 60–28 loss to Eastern. “So if they mess up, I can help them out. I’m just trying to have their backs.”
This isn’t the senior year McKillop had planned. The Minutemen’s best all-round player suffered a left knee injury on the 10th play of the season, in the opening quarter of the first game against Kingsway.
To say it was a blow for Washington Township would be an understatement.
The Minutemen have their third different head coach in three years — long-time assistant and Township alum Mike Schatzman was promoted to the position last February — and they have a deep crop of talented underclassmen. But, as a whole, they are inexperienced and at the starting block of a multi-year rebuilding process.
And then, Game 1, opening quarter, the vocal leader of the defense and versatile offensive cog goes down.
“He’s our guy, going into the year,” Schatzman said. “He’s a guy who was coming back that we knew was a sure thing, we knew what he was going to give us. … You miss that, you miss that leadership. It was a gut punch, especially (to happen) early on.”
“It’s been hard because I put so much into it with all of the guys, and watching while not being able to help them,” McKillop said. “It’s just real hard because you can’t control it.”
Unfortunately, McKillop’s posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injury, which could keep him out of at least one more game, is hardly the worst thing that’s happened to him in the last year. Last November, McKillop’s mother, Teresa, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Teresa McKillop recently finished her last session of chemotherapy.
“She just rang the bell about two weeks ago,” Schatzman said. “It’s a lot. He’s got a lot of tough situations going on. It’s very difficult. But he’s a great kid, and we love having him around.”
It’s natural for anyone with a family member battling cancer to worry and stress.
Now imagine it’s your mom and you’re a teenager, and she’s your rock at home, your foundation. Now take away football as a happy distraction — it’s easier for your mind to wander when you’re on the sidelines — and surely it’d be difficult to find an escape.
“It’s a lot of stuff, but we’re pushing through,” McKillop said.
“His mom is going through all of this and she’s such a positive person,” Schatzman said. “If anyone is going to beat anything, it’s going to be her. There are times you can tell it bothers him, it affects him. But he’s got a bubbly personality, he’s very talkative, he’s a team-first type kid.”
Like his mom, Joe McKillop is a fighter. And because of his mom, he has a healthy perspective if not a completely healthy left knee.
A strained or even slightly-torn PCL isn’t anything compared to cancer.
“It motivates me every day,” McKillop said. “If she can do it, I can do it. So I’ve been pushing, I’ve been going strong in rehab for her. I’ll be fine.”
With more than half of the season still remaining, McKillop, who will see a doctor for possible clearance this week, has plenty of time to help his Minutemen teammates on the field and to bolster his college recruiting tape, too. An athlete that probably profiles as a safety in college, McKillop has received interest from Kutztown University, Bryant University, and Virginia Military Institute, among others.
In a perfect world, a year from now, McKillop will have pads on under his jersey and a helmet on his head, making plays for one of those universities, with his mom near the sidelines, cheering him on and offering up regular encouragement when he comes off the field.