FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -– Senior Kenny Calaj never expected he would spend as much time in the swimming pool as on turf this season for Everett football, but a high ankle sprain in the preseason certainly changed his plan.
Finishing last year on a short list of contenders for this fall's ESPN Boston All-State Team, the dual-threat at linebacker and half back was shifting into the lead back role for Everett football on its quest for a third Super Bowl, but after the injury was left playing only a few sporadic plays during the regular season.
Unable to put pressure on his ankle, the senior found the water the perfect place to do the work he could not on the field.
“I told him a long time ago I had seen (Barry Sanders) hurt his knees and ankles in the pros,” said Everett coach John DiBiaso. “(He) did a lot of pool work to get back, because there is no stress on your (ankles).”
At North Suburban Orthopedics, Calaj worked his cuts for the field, practiced rolling his ankle and ran through the resistances of water to keep in shape. Combined with a little ice and some stretching with bands, Calaj was ready on Super Bowl Saturday for not only his first full game, but his biggest play of the season.
“I was in the swimming pool every single second,” said Calaj. “A lot of running back and forth. Trying to swim while rotating all my ankles.”
Calaj may have had only 10 carries for 31 yards against Barnstable (11-1) in the Division 1A EMass Super Bowl, but showed the extra step he gained in training on defense in the last few minutes at Gillette Stadium. The Tides' lead linebacker eyed Barnstable senior quarterback Nicholas Peabody rolling out of the pocket around the Tides' 40-yard line and scrambling for a pass opportunity to cut away at a 20-19 Everett lead. Undercutting a cut-back pass to senior Manny Perry, Calaj grabbed an interception on the Everett 38-yard line to finish the Red Raiders' final possession.
A Tide man-coverage defense fronted by Calaj held a pass-heavy Barnstable team, who averaged 36.69 points per game, to 297 yards and 19 points, while forcing two interceptions.
“I made a read that he was going out so I was going to play off a little bit,” said Calaj. “As soon as he threw it I was going to cut in front of him and intercept the ball. I had been hurt all season so I needed to make this play for me and my teammates.”
Calaj remembered his team's 13-7 overtime loss in September to Barnstable all too well during the interception. The four-year starter had to sit in the rain on the sidelines and watch the 28-game win streak he had help make be snapped. After scoring early on a two-yard run by fellow senior Jalen Felix, the Tide could have used Calaj athleticism as they were held scoreless for the final three quarters.
“It was just frustrating because I really could not do what I usually could have done,” said Calaj.” “I was playing with two high ankle sprains (so) I really could not hit the holes like I wanted to. I was going to change that today.”