Walled Lake Western senior overcomes injuries, time away from the game, to become a standout linebacker
By Matthew B. Mowery
Wixom – If the sport your child loves caused two terrible injuries — one was bad enough to confine them to a wheelchair or a walker for mobility — before the age of 16, it’s going to be an awfully hard sell to convince you as a parent to allow your son run the risk again.
As much as Sonja Moffett wanted to keep her son safe, and not take the chance of him repeating the two leg injuries that cost him so much physically and emotionally, she finally relented to let him chase his football dreams.
Jonathon Moffett is a senior at Walled Lake Western. He starts at linebacker for a team that’s ranked No. 5 in the state by State Champs.
“She didn’t get it,” Jonathon Moffett said. “She didn’t understand how much I love football. She didn’t get that I couldn’t see my life without it. She was like, ‘You really want to make a career out of this? Go to college and the NFL?’ That was hard for my mom. The first game last year, that was hard for her. She didn’t want me to go out there.”
Eventually he won her over. And a little over a year later, after one full season of varsity competition, Jonathon Moffett has become one of the top linebackers in Oakland County and has given a verbal commitment to Indiana State.
It’s seemingly light years away from where he was physically just a short time ago.
“I’m overwhelmingly proud of Jonathon,” Sonja Moffett said. “To be honest with you, I did not want him to play again. Everybody in our life, even our orthopedic surgeon, he was like ‘Oh, hey you’re ready to go back out there.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘If this was your kid, would you let him play?’ And I was really indignant about it. And he looked at me, and said, ‘Absolutely,’
“I think it just empowered Jonathon. He’s always been very focused about what he wants to do. And I didn’t want to break his dreams, I didn’t want to kill his dreams. I just had to step back. Because what kind of parent would I be if I said, ‘No you can’t play anymore. I’m going to keep you back,’ and he just wouldn’t realize? Now this kid has worked his way to a scholarship. I am overwhelmingly proud of him.”
Just getting clearance to return to the field was no guarantee, however.
Competing for the first time since middle school, Moffett faced challenges physically and mentally. There was the additional task of learning a new position. The time spent away from the game also impacted his chances on being recruited to play in college.
Injury after injury
Born in Detroit, Moffett moved to Florida at age 4, and lived there until returning to Michigan at age 12. As a member of the high-level Southfield Falcons youth football program, he was teammates with a number of future football stars, as was the case as a student at Southfield Christian.
“I went to middle school with Donovan Peoples-Jones (Detroit Cass Tech, Michigan),” he said. “Me and him, we ran track together. I saw him go to high school, do all these big things, and I was like, ‘Man, I gotta do that next year.’ And the plan is just ruined the first year.”
The first setback was when Moffett suffered a torn tendon in his knee in seventh grade.
“I was 5-5, and I grew five inches in one year. I was going through a growth spurt, and my ligament got really small,” he said. “One day … I cut the wrong way, and my patellar tendon snapped.”
The second injury was a direct result of the first one being handled improperly.
“What they did, was they got the tendon in surgery, and they stapled it down. They weren’t supposed to staple it down, because I was still growing. They were supposed to stitch it up … but they stapled it. So over two years, it caused stress fractures,” Moffett said of the recurring injury which came to a head in ninth grade.
“It was the same exact play. I was going on the outside, trying to juke somebody, and my leg just snapped. It was devastating for me. I was relying on football to get me where I needed to go, to college and everything. So, yeah, I was really depressed, and my grades slipped.”
With both injuries, there was a point at which Moffett couldn’t walk on his own, forcing him to either use a wheelchair or a walker. For a strapping young athlete, that too was a painful, often depressing, situation.
“It was humbling,” he said “It was humbling, because you see yourself as this big athlete, like ‘I’m going places,’ but when something like that happens, it’s just really disappointing. Because it’s happened twice,” Moffett said. “The people I knew the first time it happened were like, ‘OK, you’re going to come back and be better than ever.’
“And then it happened the second time, and not only me, but everybody around me was disappointed, looking forward to me being in high school football, seeing what I could do.”
His mother tried to get him interested in other things. One was robotics and to become the coach of the high school team. This would provide an alternative outlet for his competitive energy.
But it wasn’t the same.
“He was very down. He was a different kid. Football defined him,” she said. “When he got hurt, it was just really hard for him, because that was his identity, and he had to learn more about who he was.”
It didn’t work. Not meeting the school’s academic standards, Moffett had to Christian and then transferred to Southfield-Lathrup.
That wasn’t a long-term solution, either.
“I still wasn’t ready to play for my 10th-grade year. My leg still wasn’t strong enough,” Moffett said. “Then I found out Lathrup would be closing, and I decided to transfer here (to Walled Lake Western). I feel like that was the best decision that I’d made, because if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
A positional change
Had he wound up elsewhere, Moffett might have gone back to playing running back, the position he grew up playing. He started out in the backfield once he joined Western’s team, but was asked to move to linebacker as well, helping solidify a spot where the Warriors were a bit lean.
It was a whole new experience for him.
“I played both ways in Little League, because I was bigger. I played D-end, but I was a running back primarily. I didn’t really care too much for defense. It was just go out there and go tackle somebody, but now there’s a lot more strategy to it,” Moffett admitted. “It’s not like somebody telling you ‘Do this,’ and it’s one thing. You have many different assignments.”
Playing both ways wasn’t going to last, especially since Moffett was already behind teammates on the learning curve. Western coach Mike Zdebski cut Moffett some slack and allowed him to work his way into where Zdebski wanted him to play all along.
“We want the kids to play the position they want to play first,” Zdebski said. “Then, when we have a chance to evaluate them and get to know them, we’ll give them a recommendation on where you’re better suited to play on this team, and if you have the goals of trying to play beyond high school, where that position will be, and try to groom them for that situation.
“He started off trying to play both, and we recommended to him, ‘Let’s get good at something,’ because the peanut butter was getting spread too thin. Then you see a mistake here and a mistake here, instead of just focusing on the defensive side of the ball, and getting good at that.”
It didn’t take long for Moffett to make the decision to switch to linebacker full-time, to give himself the best shot of making it to the next level.
“I was very lost. I just saw everything slowly. Everything was fast, I was moving slow. It was a process I had to get used to. I was like, ‘OK, if I’m going to be out here playing linebacker, might as well try to be good at it, try to get a scholarship.’ I just stuck with it,” Moffett said.
“The thing is, I found that I liked hitting people more than I liked being hit, or avoiding hits. You don’t get hit in the legs as much when you’re at linebacker, you get to hit other people.”
As much as he’d tried to exude confidence about the whole situation, especially when trying to convince his mom to let him play again, Moffett was still a ball of nerves the first time he put on a helmet when Western visited Farmington to open the 2016 season.
There were reservations aplenty in his own mind.
“Yeah. You should’ve been asking me on the bus on the way to Farmington last year. On the bus, I was really stressed. I was like ‘I don’t even know if I can really do this.’ I was there, and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what to do.’ I was just trying to remember my assignments really hard, but deep down in my heart, I was like ‘I’m just going to do the best that I can,’” he said. “I ended up getting like nine tackles in the first half of that game. It worked out. I still needed to improve a lot, though.”
Making up the lag
At 6-1, 220 pounds, Moffett passes the eye test: He looks like a linebacker.
But there’s more to it than that, particularly honing the instincts that take years of repetitions to get down.
“He didn’t play any high school football, and the speed of the game increases exponentially every year, and his first experience is a varsity game,” Zdebski said. “So we assumed that he would become a better and better player with each repetition, each quarter and each game. And he has. When the colleges came in the spring, every workout he was better and better. And when Indiana State was here, that particular day — the head coach was here — he moved as well as any linebacker we’ve seen. Change-of-direction, burst. But that came from the repetition and performing in front of Big Ten schools, SEC schools, Big 12 schools, MAC schools. So he was he was performing in front of some very intriguing coaches who will impose some self-pressure that makes it very difficult for a young man to excel, and not think, and just execute what you’re taught.”
Even after the first few scholarship offers, one from Saginaw Valley State and the one from Indiana State, there’s still much Moffett has to learn.
“We still want him to play downhill more, and run faster through open windows, and cross-face on closed windows, and he’s still improving, still getting better,” Zdebski said. “Like we all know, he’s still — it’s only his 15th game since middle school sports. So he has a lot of upside.”
As far as Moffett was behind on the learning curve of playing the game, he was just as far back in getting noticed. Thanks to his mother and Justin Cessante, the director of football operations at the Legacy Center in Brighton, Moffett he worked hard to get himself noticed, making up a flyer with all of his pertinent information on it, and handed them out to coaches.
“Some of them held on to them, some of them didn’t. One of them pulled the trigger,” Moffett said. “I just sort of persevered with the recruiting.”
It paid off, as did his mom’s decision to allow him play again.
“It was a sigh of relief (when he got offered), because we didn’t know — it’s so competitive. I believe that if Jonathon didn’t get hurt, he would’ve been one of those five-star guys. I really believe that,” Sonja Moffett said.
“But he really had to have that journey. He had to. He has a humility about him that other kids don’t have, in my opinion. I’m just his mom. But he’s a humble boy. He needed that. I think it’s really going help him be a better man in the long run.”