WINTERVILLE, N.C. – Caleb Woodley guns it through passing drills inside the gym at South Central High School on an overcast Monday afternoon.
A torrential downpour from earlier in the day has forced Woodley and the rest of his Falcons teammates inside for practice. The steady squeak of basketball shoes on the shiny hardwood floor is deafening and mixes in with impassioned grunts and occasional yells to form the perfect soundtrack of organized chaos.
One-by-one, Woodley cannons crisp passes that find their mark smack-dab in the middle of the numbers plastered across the front of his teammates’ white practice jerseys.
To say he seems satisfied in this moment would severely be underselling the state of contentment.
Woodley is downright giddy.
“I love this stuff,” Woodley says with a smile. “Everything about it. As an athlete they teach you never to be satisfied, but man, I’m honestly just happy to be here.”
He very nearly wasn’t.
On Dec. 30 of last year, Woodley suffered two seizures, four hours apart. Two days later, he was in the intensive care unit and on Jan. 9 he was placed into a medically induced coma.
Woodley wasn’t taken off the ventilator for good until Feb. 17.
“Until then I was always a pretty healthy guy,” Woodley says. “Never had any problems. It was a tough time for me.”
Only heightened by the death of Woodley’s grandfather Glen Neal Titus Jr., who was admitted to the hospital just eight days before Caleb on Dec. 22.
Titus was a floor above Woodley at the same hospital and eventually passed due to complications with cancer on Feb. 28.
The family decided not to tell Woodley about his grandfather until after the funeral.
“He was on a lot of medicine that was making him forget things,” Woodley’s mother Stephanie says. “I only wanted to have to tell him one time. It was rough.”
Naturally, Caleb was overrun with emotion.
“We didn’t see each other every week, or talk every day but I took it pretty rough,” Caleb says. “My grandad and my mom were very close and I remembered that. I hated that he died while I was in the hospital. It was just another bad thing that happened to my family and I know that I came close to that myself. It was scary.”
It certainly didn’t ease his fears that the doctors never gave him a concrete reason for the seizures. They hypothesized that it could have been related to a tick bite.
“It’s frustrating, but we got to the point where we didn’t care what caused it,” Stephanie says. “We wanted to know if they could fix it.”
The tunnel vision was understandable since Caleb’s road to recovery promised to be long and grueling. Over the next few months, he relearned to walk, swallow and talk. He never fully regained his memory from November and December.
“I didn’t even remember what Doritos were or what Bojangles was,” Caleb says. “My family thought I was joking when I asked what those things were, but I really didn’t. It was a pretty scary time because I didn’t know what I’d be able to do going forward.”
The most frightening question?
Would he be able to play football again?
Stephanie thought hanging the cleats up would be a foregone conclusion given his condition and his size; Caleb went from 148 pounds to 118 pounds in the 84 days that he spent in the hospital.
“The neurologist told us that if he’s physically able to play then he’s fine to play,” Stephanie says. “We were shocked, but knowing how much he loves to play I was happy for him.”
By the time the season rolled around in August, Caleb, a junior, was up to nearly 170 pounds and was the Falcons’ No. 2 quarterback after he starred on the JV team the previous year leading the Falcons to a 9-1 record.
On Oct. 8, Caleb got the starting nod in a road game against North Pitt (Bethel) after quarterback Dexter McDuffie went down with an injury.
By the time the final horn sounded, and perhaps fittingly, it was Caleb’s star that shone brightest under the Friday Night Lights, tossing four touchdown passes and going 14-of-23 for 296 yards in a 40-7 win over the Panthers.
“It felt great,” says Caleb, who was subsequently named Player of the Week by local media outlets. “I won’t lie I was really nervous before the game, but I settled down and just played the way I know how to play. After the game, I was just thinking about how I could do better next game. The biggest thing was I was gonna be confident the next week. Confidence is my biggest weakness but I had it now. I was most excited about that. I was ready to play confidently from the beginning.”
He never got the chance.
Despite McDuffie’s return to the lineup, Caleb got the starting nod again on Sept. 15, but during warmups when the center snapped him the ball from the shotgun formation, Caleb just stood still.
Teammates and coaches called him repeatedly trying to see what was going on and he didn’t answer.
He was having a seizure.
“It was frustrating because I wasn’t aware that anything was wrong,” Caleb says. “My friends would be asking me if I’m OK and in my mind I’m saying, ‘Yeah I’m fine!’ But nothing came out.”
Caleb had been on medication for the seizures since leaving the hospital in February and was advised to up the dosage.
But the following week, during pregame warmups, it happened again. Prior to that, Caleb hadn’t had any seizures since July 11.
Doctors later informed Caleb that most likely his pregame seizures were caused by his heightened emotions.
The irony being that emotion is not only welcomed in football, one could argue that it’s needed. Especially at quarterback.
“It’s football, I mean really?” Caleb says. “Stay calm?”
The proverbial “perfect storm” that was those three weeks gave way to the all-consuming, biggest three-letter word in the English language: Why.
“I was mad at God if I’m being honest,” Caleb says. “I didn’t understand. I had everything that I wanted right there in front of me. I have a strong faith, but, at the time, I just didn’t understand any of it. It was hard.”
Caleb’s father, Stewart, is a minister, and he gave his son advice as simple as it was complex: Give up dwelling on the “why.”
“There’s a certain futility in trying to figure out purpose because until you’re face to face with God and can ask him, you’re just guessing,” Stewart says. “I always tell Caleb the best thing you can do is take the circumstances and make the best of them.
“In all truth, barring an injury, he would’ve spent the entire year on the bench, but because of the circumstances, he got a platform. He got his shot in the fourth game of the season and made the most of it. Through that game, he gets to tell his story and be an inspiration to people everywhere. That all happened in a week.”
That message resonated with Caleb.
Even now the proper perspective helps calm his competitive urges and focus on the big picture.
“We’re winning!” Caleb says with a grin. “We’ve only lost one game all year and we’ve got New Bern Friday. Of course, I want to be out there again playing and competing, but I’ve learned patience and being content. Most importantly, I learned to stay ready.”
South Central coach Andy Tew said Caleb is more than ready, he’s proven.
“He got his shot and he thrived in that moment,” Tew said. “He was so composed and, quite frankly, he made passes that won the game. This football team won a hard game on the road because of this man’s leadership and composure in his first-ever varsity start. That’s remarkable in itself; when you add in his backstory it’s just amazing. We know that he’s fully capable of winning football games. We’ve seen it.”
Sure, Caleb has dreams of hitting a receiver in stride for a touchdown to win the state championship and posing for sweat-soaked snapshots amid a confetti shower, but after all he’s been through he’s “convinced” that his purpose is greater.
He leans up on the metal bleachers, interlocks his fingers, rests his elbows on his knees and gazes up, almost as if he’s, just in this moment, come to some sort of deep realization.
“There’s no way I came back from everything and experienced what I’ve experienced and I’m not supposed to be helping people,” Caleb says. “I love football and I want to play football as long as I can, but I know that there’s more for me. I want to follow my dad’s footsteps and become a minister. I want to get my story out. I’m alive.
“I still take medication for the seizures, but the doctors feel like I’ll be able to come off altogether soon. I’m not looking for the next seizure and I don’t focus so much on the ‘why’ anymore, now I just try to be better in every way and be better to people. I know what I went through wasn’t just for me.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY