Lawrence County's Eli Long remains unbroken

Feb. 29—MOULTON — The Lawrence County basketball team took a trip to the Shoals for a summer playdate against Deshler two years ago. As the Red Devils ran up and down the Tiger floor, Eli Long did what he had done since he was 5.

"Competition, I just love competition. There's nothing like the thrill of playing in a game," he said. "The moments really matter."

But as he went up for a layup, one moment threatened to matter more than any other.

"I just went up and blacked out," he said. "It wasn't really painful at the time, really it was just so much shock. I looked around and was like, 'What are all these people doing around me? Why am I on the ground?' I tried to get up and look down and my leg was just not moving."

His father, Josh Long, was just a few feet away. He said as soon as his son hit the ground he knew something was wrong.

"It was awful," Josh Long said. "That was the most scared I've ever been. The most worried I've ever been since I've been a grown person. I've been through a couple of different things, but nothing that compares to that."

A week later he was in crutches with a broken tibia. Eli had a Salter-Harris fracture in between the growth plates of his leg, so when he jumped, he pulled them apart and broke it.

"If I think about it, I went from working out everyday and being in good shape to where I looked down and my leg looked like my arm, looked like a noodle," Eli said. "I knew I had to work for this."

Eli had been a three-sport athlete. Now, he would go without sports for close to a year. But he wasn't worried. He found faith in the face of uncertainty.

"I remember being calm because everything in my life had changed except one thing: Christ. I know my life isn't motivated by sports, I want to be a better person. That came to realization in the moment because I wasn't so busy with everything. I didn't think about what could change."

It was a message he reflected on his parents.

"He just looked at me straight in the face and said 'Dad, I'm going to work and do what I've got to do to get better. I love playing ball, but my identity is not in sports, my identity is in Jesus,'" Josh Long said. "That put things in perspective for me. We've been playing sports our whole lives, but that's not the end-all, be-all."

Sports may not be his identity, but it is his passion. So when football season rolled around, he cheered for his teammates on the sidelines. Eli got to watch his teammates play the 2022 football and basketball seasons without him. He made his comeback in baseball, but things weren't the same.

"I remember I was playing third base, where you have to move a lot side to side. I was just so hesitant about it. Everything I would do I would try to do it tender and you can't play halfway," he said. "Breaking your leg and coming back to play sports again, is always in the back of your head. You're always a tiny bit hesitant. I've got an 8-inch scar that reminds me that your life can change in a heartbeat."

So he worked. Eli hit the weight room with a new outlook because "you sit there watching and it makes you a little more hungry than everybody else," he said.

"You realize it can be over at any moment. That right there drove me to play every snap like it could be my last snap because it very well could be. I wanted to finish every block I could. I wanted to be there for my teammate, to help my teammate up just in case it was the last one for me or them because it could happen at any moment."

Despite having to wear a knee-brace for the first time in his career, he was named to the 5A All-State first-team for football and was the county's leader in pancake blocks with 83 and no sacks allowed. Earlier in the month, he committed to a preferred walk-on opportunity to play football at the University of North Alabama. He also started in basketball and is a major contributor in baseball, according to his coach Carson Jones.

"We talk about heartbeat, he was one of the strong heartbeats inside of our locker room. There's guys that look up to him; he has everybody's respect," Walker said. "We have some inside-run drills and we had some linebackers help us with defensive looks each week. I just felt bad for them sometimes but he wasn't being mean or malicious, he was just holding that standard."

Walker and Eli's parents all agreed that Eli had matured in the process and emerged on the other side of the injury the same athlete and a better person. His mother, Abby Long, said she was hesitant about his return to play but she said, "He wanted to do it. He said, 'I'm not afraid.'"

"I've learned that he is really mature beyond his years," she said. "The way he handled the injury, his demeanor, his calmness, his faith. He's taught us a lot."

The Long family said they owe it all to the Moulton community.

"High school recruitment is real, and we've had several different places try and offer to move him," Abby Long said. "We didn't and stayed loyal to Lawrence County, and we could not have gotten through this without them. To stay loyal to our school and community is one of the best decisions we've ever made"