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The rise of Dortch: Deacons’ playmaker returns with clean bill of health, enhanced appreciation

February 24, 2018 GMT

Greg Dortch always told his young son — now a redshirt freshman receiver at Wake Forest — that if he got the wind was knocked out of him, he needed to get up right away or stop playing football. Nothing’s broken, nothing’s bleeding, so get on your feet and get back in the game.

So when the younger Greg Dortch caught a swing pass from John Wolford at the 6-yard line against Louisville last season and launched himself from the 3-yard line for a touchdown — his 5-foot-9 frame sliding under a defender and skidding atop a pylon — his father’s words echoed in his mind as he caught his breath.

“So I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta get up,’” Dortch said last week, revisiting it roughly a week away from Wake Forest’s first spring practice. “But it stayed there longer than usual. So I’m just thinking to myself like, ‘I hope I’m not seriously hurt.’ And then when I came back to the sideline, it was still hurting a little bit, but knowing me, I still wanted to play.

“We’re playing Lamar Jackson, Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville. So I’m telling trainers, ‘I’m OK, I can get back in.’”

Dortch scored two more times that day, giving him four scores. In between the third and fourth, he had a potential fifth touchdown overturned because of a fumble. He knows if he had switched the ball to his left hand, he wouldn’t have fumbled, and would have tied the ACC’s record for most receiving touchdowns in a game.

But he doesn’t regret that. Nor does Dortch regret that the punctured small intestine cost him the final five games, just when he felt “I was playing at the level I wanted to be playing at.”

Yes, spending five days at Wake Baptist Hospital was rough, when Dortch, in his own words: “Couldn’t eat, had a tube in my nose, couldn’t swallow. Everything that touched my stomach the first couple of days, I threw it up.”

The breakout star of Wake Forest’s first eight games had 10 catches for 167 yards in a 45-35 win against the Cardinals, and his play was getting better as the Deacons were facing better teams.

Suddenly, cruelly, it was over.

When Dortch and those closest to him look back on that time now, all it’s done is heighten the appreciation of what football means to a player who would lay out his entire uniform the night before games when he was younger.

“That’s probably the best day of my life, I don’t regret anything. I’m thankful it happened, I appreciate football more,” Dortch said. “It humbled me, I feel like it needed to happen, honestly. I appreciate it, because I’m working my tail off.”

‘Can I play?’

The Oct. 28 game against Louisville was Wake Forest’s family weekend, and Dortch had a whole bunch of relatives at BB&T Field that day. He met with them on the field after the performance, gave away his gloves and signed autographs.

Every time Dortch laughed, he felt pain.

That accelerated a process that made it the longest day of Dortch’s life. He was examined by one Wake Forest’s trainers, who surmised he needed a CT scan. X-rays followed, and then a wait for the results. When results came back, the need for surgery was clear — Dortch had a hole in his small intestine that needed to be sewn together.

An ambulance ride came next, which was “probably the longest and worst ride of my life. It was so bumpy,” Dortch said, noting that once the adrenaline from the game wore off, he really started feeling the pain. This was all happening to someone who had never been seriously injured, through football or anything else, in his life.

The arrival at Wake Baptist was around midnight, roughly 8½ hours after the game ended, and there still wasn’t an official word of his injury. Dortch’s parents were with him, his girlfriend had driven from North Carolina Central and Kevin Higgins, Wake Forest’s receivers coach / assistant head coach, were in the room when the doctor delivered the diagnosis, along with “your season’s over.”

“I just broke down crying,” Dortch said.

Higgins’ message was simple: “God has a plan and this isn’t the last time people are going to see me.”

Shortly after that, the room cleared and Dortch was wheeled into a white room with about six doctors, who had him sign documents and asked him questions before they gave him a shot to render him unconscious for two hours of surgery.

“He was devastated,” Loretta Dortch said. “He really felt like he let his team down. It wasn’t about him or his injury, it was all about, ‘My team, I let my team down.’

“The day after surgery, he was ready to go. The first thing he said was, ‘Can I play?’ And we had to explain to him that he could not.”

That explanation had to be delivered to a 19-year-old who was able to carry a full-sized football before he was 1. Loretta Dortch’s son would cry when he was 2 because he wanted to get on a treadmill. The solution was to put him on the treadmill, and he would just run.

Greg Dortch remembers nights before his son’s youth games, he’d glance into his room.

“He would go to bed … but he set up all stuff,” the elder Dortch said. “So, you peek in his room and like, ‘Boy, whatchu doing sleeping on the floor?’ But it’s not him, he’s got his socks, his cleats, his shirt, his pants, it looks like he’s all flat laying on the floor.”

And yet, the most painful part for Dortch wasn’t in his stomach, or that he couldn’t continue his breakout season as a redshirt freshman — 53 catches for 722 yards and nine touchdowns, plus another 559 yards in kick and punt returns.

The worst part for him was being unable to join his teammates, and since he’s returned, that’s the reason a wide smile can once again be seen on his face.

“I missed everybody. Doing this, grinding with people, sweating, joking with each other in the locker room, just having fun, just everything,” Dortch said. “When you’re hurt, in the hospital, you’re away from everybody. Them texting you and calling you is not the same as you being right there with them.

“I’d probably say just the relationships with everybody that I’ve built since I’ve been back, it’s just brought me closer to everybody.”

The return

“He’s full go. No restrictions.”

That’s the word from Coach Dave Clawson of Wake Forest this week when asked about Dortch’s availability — because the first spring practice is Monday.

It was Clawson who said in December that, even with the possibility of Dortch being medically cleared a few days ahead of the Belk Bowl, “to play him for the bowl game would be to risk something that a father would never risk for his son. Even if he wanted to play, we wouldn’t let him.”

Dortch, as you can guess by now, lobbied to play in the Belk Bowl. Sitting out as a redshirt in 2016 was painful enough, and he wanted to play in a bowl game. But as he looks back, Dortch admits that watching that game from the sideline — somewhat famously, as a camera captured him late in the first half joyously waving a towel and pointing downfield — was the better option.

“I could feel it still that I wasn’t ready. I feel way better now than I did back then,” Dortch said.

Now that he’s ready to return, Clawson is able to reflect on what he saw while Dortch was out.

“Taking football out of his life for as long as it was, was really hard on him. I mean, that kid, he loves practice … he loves the one-on-ones, he loves everything about the game,” Clawson said. “I think the thing that was most impressive about Greg through that injury is, to me, he was as big a cheerleader as we had.

“Sometimes you have those guys that are real productive and play a lot, then when they get hurt they become withdrawn and they’re less a part of the team. Greg, even though it was hard on him, I thought handled his injury with a lot of maturity and was still very team-oriented.”

Loretta Dortch figures Sunday night will be a sleepless one for her son, that the eve of spring practice and his return to the field in a competitive environment, with his teammates, will be too much to let him keep his eyes closed.

The elder Greg Dortch has told his son not to think about stats in the upcoming season, to “just play and pray to God he keeps you healthy.”

There’s a scar in the middle of Dortch’s chest now. He’s had teammates suggest a tattoo to make a unique design out of it, like a sword. While he’s undecided on any body art with it, he does have one thing in mind for touchdown celebrations.

“I might pull up my shirt next year so y’all can see my scar,” Dortch said with a laugh.

And while it’ll be the only visible remnant of the injury, the impact of it figures to have more of a lasting impact on Dortch — and on the Deacons’ opponents.