GROTON — It only took 45 seconds on Wednesday afternoon for David Berroa to dive headfirst after a loose ball.
If he wanted to ease back into action, the dynamically athletic senior guard from the Brooks School did not waste any time.
“My first instinct was to get right back up,” admitted Berroa of his first collision in his first game back since suffering a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula last January.
“Once I knew that I could, I said, ‘Hey, I’m still in this.’ ”
Berroa’s coach, John McVeigh, acknowledged that Berroa’s exuberance led to some struggles in the first half against host Lawrence Academy. But he settled in for the second half and proved to be a difference maker in the game’s defining plays.
“We had a moment in the locker room at halftime where I said, ‘Hey, you’re on the court. You’re playing,’ ” said McVeigh. “I think he was so eager to play well that he needed to just take a little bit of a deep breath.”
It was an understandable reaction given a post-injury prognosis that had many believing the Lawrence teen would never again play basketball.
“As a coach, it’s the worst moment I’ve ever been involved in,” said McVeigh of the injury, which he described as Joe Theismann-like. “You knew how bad it was right away.”
Seven games into last season, the 5-foot-11, 161-pound Berroa was beginning to capture the attention of New England college coaches with averages of 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. It was a promising trajectory for a player who had chosen to leave Lawrence High after two years and repeat his sophomore year at Brooks.
But everything changed in a split-second that January afternoon.
“The [opposing] player was trailing David, and as he squared up [along the baseline] and released the ball he got knocked to the side,” explained McVeigh of the inbounds play. “The combination of being up as high as he was and losing his balance . . . David just ended up coming down with all his weight on one leg. It just snapped.”
Lying on the gym floor, his leg numb and McVeigh holding his hand, Berroa sorted through the moment.
“I wanted to scream and I wanted to swear,” he explained.
Instead, he said, “I just mellowed out and started praying. I was thinking about my family and about what’s happening next from here. What’s my education going to be like? How are my relationships? [I knew] that this was going to be a big turn and that if I did get to play basketball again I would have to play differently. I was thinking that I’m a very faithful man and I was saying, ‘God, let my life be yours.’ ”
It was a fitting response for the middle child of three boys raised by loving parents, David Sr. and Kenia, who each Sunday together attend Peniel Spanish Christian Church in Lawrence, where the elder Berroa is pastor.
“We never expected to see him playing basketball again,” explained David Sr., who fought back tears after learning his son’s playing career might be finished. “But because he said that he would [come back], we were going to support him.”
Surgery to insert a titanium rod followed, and Berroa spent three months working his way back from having his leg in traction to eventually walking with a limp.
It was a remarkable turnaround.
“After they took out the staples, the doctor told my dad, ‘Wow, this is amazing. The bone has grown in a month. I think [David will be able] to play basketball again,’ ” recalled an elated Berroa. In late spring he began to run and jump, and — after he completed physical therapy — was cleared to play hoop again.
“I remember the first time he started walking’’ without any assistance, said Berroa’s younger brother, Joel, a 6-4, 200-pound senior who plays for Central Catholic. “He came to me and said, ‘I need your help because I am going to get back. And this time it’s for real.’ ”
With aspirations of becoming an architect and redesigning Lawrence’s dilapidated mills, Berroa is focused on his college options for next year.
He lists Northeastern, where he would walk on, Trinity College, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute as schools on his radar. But this is still subject to change.
“It’s tough to identify schools right now because they’ve all been waiting to see him play this winter,” McVeigh said. “But if you watched him out there today and you know the back story, I don’t know how you can walk away not saying, ‘That’s somebody I want on my team.’ ”
When the buzzer sounded, Brooks had a 58-56 season-opening overtime win.
And Berroa’s impact was evident in almost every key element affecting the game’s outcome. He contributed 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting; snagged 9 rebounds against a significantly bigger foe; shut down Lawrence’s best offensive player with the game tied at 51 and seconds remaining in regulation; and provided the leadership his teammates needed during some tense and emotion-filled situations.
“It was great to have him out there just feeling normal again, to play some ball and to win a game,” said senior teammate Dylan Quigley.
“This is the first game and I hope I can be consistent from here on out,” Berroa said as he held ice in one hand designated for his admittedly sore left leg. “I hope that schools take interest, but right now I am just trying to get better and keep helping the team. If coaches see that and want to invest in me, that would be awesome.”
Wherever Berroa lands, he realizes it will take continued hard work, the love and support of his family, friends, coaches, and teachers, and an unflappable faith that he attributes to helping his bones heal quicker.
“I had my middle school teacher tell me I wasn’t going anywhere. It was rough, really rough,” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed support. It’s more of ‘surrendering’ in my mind to a greater power.”