When you describe someone using the tough-as-nails idiom, you are implying the individual is strong, determined and enduring.
While all of those descriptions fit Joplin junior Bruce Wilbert, they might actually be underselling just how resilient the wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner truly is.
Wilbert, who made his first-career start at the varsity level in the Eagles’ 41-40 win over Webb City on Friday, played the entire second half unknowingly with a lacerated spleen.
Wilbert fielded a kickoff with 90 seconds before the intermission and returned the ball to the Webb City 48-yard line, which was instrumental in Joplin’s ensuing drive that led to a go-ahead 28-yard touchdown pass from Always Wright to Trayshawn Thomas a short time later that gave the Eagles a 27-25 lead. The hit Wilbert took wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. In fact, he thought he had just gotten the wind knocked out of him.
“I fielded the kickoff and saw an opening towards the sideline,” Wilbert said. “I juked like I was going inside before cutting back to the outside, making one of the defenders fall. I didn’t see anyone else, and I thought I was gone, so I took off but got tackled from behind me off my right hip. It wasn’t even that big of a hit … he just drove me into the ground.
“I really just thought he knocked the wind out of me. I stood up, asked the backup X to go in, got a drink, and when I went to sit down on the bench, I realized it was a little bit more.”
Once in the locker room at halftime, the Joplin team doctors looked over Wilbert thoroughly, following all of the proper protocols, with the conclusion he probably had bruised ribs.
“They had me ice it all the way through halftime,” Wilbert said. “After I took the ice off, they wanted me to sit for five minutes and tell them exactly how I felt. They wanted to know how I felt as the feeling of the ice started wearing off.
“As soon as they let me take the ice off (and test it), I ran out there and was doing twists and and jogs until I worked up to a sprint. I was able to do all of that, and it didn’t really hurt that bad. … As soon as they told me I could play (if I wanted to), I ran up to my coaches and told them to put me in.”
Wilbert played the next two quarters, helping the Eagles in their win over the Cardinals in front of the home crowd at Junge Field. Wilbert finished with two receptions for 19 yards, one solo tackle and three kick returns with an average of 29 yards per return.
“We worked all summer as hard as we could, and we didn’t even know how many games we would get to play, or if we would even get to play this season because of COVID,” Wilbert said while explaining why it was so important to him to play in the second half. “We were all excited for Week 1 because we got to play Webb, so I just wanted to go out and give it my all for my teammates.
“It almost felt like I was just playing with a soreness or a muscle cramp, one of those things you just push through. It was also Week 1, and we were playing Webb City, so I think the adrenaline really helped a lot. We just wanted to win that game so badly.”
As soon as the adrenaline wore off that evening, Wilbert started to realize his injury may be worse than he originally thought. The pain intensified by the time Saturday morning arrived, with Wilbert icing the area again before reporting the problem to the team doctors, who urged him to go to the doctors immediately after discussing his experiences.
“When I got (to the hospital), I still didn’t think it was anything serious enough to keep me out of any games or anything like that,” Wilbert said. “I was really, really sad when they told me that I lacerated my spleen. … The first question I asked was how long would I be out?”
Fortunately for Wilbert, his injury was not severe enough to require any type of surgery to repair or remove his spleen. As for his recovery, Wilbert was directed to get plenty of rest in order to let the laceration heal on its own.
“They told me it was serious, but it wasn’t bad enough that I needed surgery,” Wilbert said. “They kept me overnight for precaution to make sure my blood levels remained fine.”
Of course, an overnight stay in the hospital can be a lonely experience for anyone, but it wasn’t that way for Wilbert. From the moment he was admitted, the Joplin coaching staff was in contact with Wilbert to make sure he was comfortable.
“Honestly, they are one of the best coaching staffs I have ever played for in any sport,” Wilbert said. “As soon I went to the hospital, Coach (Curtis) Jasper was up there talking to me and making sure I was good. The coaches were texting me 24/7 to make sure I didn’t need anything and to update them as soon as I knew anything. It made me feel a lot better knowing I had that support system. They were willing to do anything they could to help me get better.”
As for Wilbert’s road to recovery, the doctors advised him to rest as much as possible, icing the area regularly, and they have scheduled a CT scan in three weeks to see how the healing has progressed.
“They wanted me to stay another night, but they told me I could leave if I promised to go home and bed rest for the next three or four days,” Wilbert said. “That is why I got to go home (on Sunday). They also told me icing it as I rest would help a lot.
“I think the best-case scenario is three weeks to heal, and the worst-case is six weeks. I am scheduled for a CT scan in two or three weeks, I think, to see if I am good or not. I will know more about it then.”
Looking back, Wilbert was asked if he had any regrets for playing through the injury. He had a quick response.
“Honestly, even with everything that happened with the injury and all of that, it was still a top-three night of my life,” Wilbert said. “If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it the exact same way, 1,000 percent. It was one of the best nights of my life, something you dream about, playing Webb City under the varsity lights.
“It means a lot to be a part of this team. I didn’t get a lot of varsity time last season, but Zach (Westmoreland) was a big mentor to me. Blake (Tash) and Zay (Isaiah Davis) were incredible leaders. Being a part of this team and taking on one of those roles, it’s unbelievable, and I would do anything for my teammates.”