MOUNT CARMEL — Joey Bendas had to catch himself before he answered the question.
It seemed all of the hard work, all of the dark times, all of the last two years crossed his mind all at once.
The Mount Carmel senior endured a lot. He took a year to rehab a torn ACL during his sophomore season, only to have it happen again — to the same knee, in the same place — before his junior season.
There was also the doubts of his wrestling coach — probably his best sport — and the worries of his parents about whether going back to football was the right decision for Bendas.
“It was just a blessing. Everything I dreamt. I just wanted to get out there,” Bendas said. “To just run through the tunnel one time.
“Honestly, it was the craziest feeling.”
In his first varsity game on Friday night — a 23-0 Mount Carmel win — Bendas carried the ball 11 times for 38 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and added two tackles as a linebacker.
It was a fitting return for a player that had his football season ripped away from him on the turf at Crispin Field of Berwick High School during summer 7-on-7s in back-to-back seasons, tearing the same right ACL.
“I was just thinking I was cursed,” Bendas said. “I’d been playing with my friends my whole life, and now my body wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do.”
Bendas missed his sophomore football season, but was able to return to wrestling, qualifying for the District 4 Tournament. His junior season injury didn’t leave him so lucky, forcing him to miss wrestling season.
“If I would have wrestled last year, I’d probably have a chance at 100 wins,” Bendas said. “I was just here supporting my teammates, doing anything I could. I was recording practices.
“I just hated watching, hated being on the sidelines.”
So, what made Bendas decide to strap it back up again with the Red Tornadoes football team? It’s the hold high school football has on the town.
“Football is everything around here. I had played with my friends all the way up through,” Bendas said. “What else would I be doing? I love being out here with my friends, hitting people.
“I just love it.”
His coach wasn’t sure what to expect from Bendas.
“I had heard he had been a real good football player in our youth football and in junior high,” Mount Carmel coach John Darrah said. “I’d never seen him practice since he had gotten hurt both years in the summer time.”
Darrah quickly found out what kind of player Bendas could be for him during an Oklahoma drill — two players line up opposite each other in a corridor of players with the goal being to stop the ball carrier, or drive the player out of the corridor — on the first day of fall practice.
“He was just sticking people left-and-right in the drill,” Darrah said. “The team gets excited for Joey, for him to have success.”
Since he’s been healthy Bendas has done everything Darrah and the Red Tornadoes have asked of him on the football field — except for one thing.
He didn’t go to 7-on-7s at Berwick this past July 24.
“I just skipped Berwick. I got up that morning, took a deep breath and called my coach. It might something about the air up there. I just can’t go up and play in it,” Bendas said.