SWEETWATER — Standing on a soggy practice field at Sweetwater High School on Tuesday, DJ Vanderwerf fired off one pass after another.
“Ready. Set, go!” the junior barked as his football teammate, Andrew Campbell, ran downfield.
Vanderwerf is set to make his second straight start at quarterback when the Wildcats, who are 4-3 and within reach of a playoff spot this season, visit Polk County on Friday. He moved over from tight end after senior Andrew Barr suffered a torn ACL in Week 5.
Quarterback is Vanderwerf’s natural position, and it’s not hard to tell he’s capable of commanding an offense. The stocky 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is 2-1 as a starter, including last week’s blowout win over Cumberland County.
There’s plenty of zip on his passes. Plus, he has just enough speed, according to Sweetwater football coach Craig Moser, to keep any defense honest.
Vanderwerf throws another pass Tuesday, this time a go-route. He steps forward, planting his left cleat into the wet soil. His follow-through exposes the left shin area, his cleat still planted on the ground. It’s encased in a fiberglass shell that is peppered with the logo of his favorite college football team — the Florida Gators.
But it’s not traditional garb that’s attached to his body.
It’s a prosthetic leg.
A startling beginning
Tamara Vanderwerf still remembers the ultrasound she had when she was 20 weeks pregnant.
It revealed her first and only child. A boy.
“Only DJ’s right leg was in view that day, of course,” Tamara said. “The ultrasound looked normal.
“But as soon as DJ was born, his birth defect was obvious.”
Daniel Vanderwerf Jr. was born with Fibular Hemimelia, a congenital defect where part or all of the fibular bone is missing. In DJ’s case, his tibia was bowed as well, causing his left leg to be shortened from the knee down.
His left foot had only three toes.
“The first thing I did was pray,” said Dan Sr., Tamara’s husband.
Tamara and Dan Sr, had a decision to make.
“I searched for the disease on the internet,” Tamara said. “The results of my search were pretty devastating — amputation was recommended in just about every article I found.”
The Vanderwerfs took their son to three different hospitals for consultation in Florida, where they lived in 1997: Shriners Hospital in Tampa, All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and Nemors Clinic in Orlando.
“Plus I mailed his records and X-rays to limb-lengthening clinics in Maryland and Virginia,” Tamara said.
Only one of the clinics they visited in Florida considered this an option.
Limb-lengthening is a brutal process, and, in DJ’s case, would require at least three surgeries just to install the hardware to lengthen his tibia. His ankle also would be fused, making running difficult.
And there was no guarantee it would work. There was still a chance it would lead to amputation.
The Vanderwerfs didn’t want that for their son later in life.
“When he was 9 months old, his left foot was amputated by a Symes procedure, which went through the ankle, removing the front part of the foot, but leaving the heel,” Tamara said.
“By leaving the heel, a person still has that to bear weight on.”
“I can’t” was never in DJ Vanderwerf’s vocabulary growing up.
“We didn’t treat him like he was an amputee,” Dan Vanderwerf said. “We told him he could do anything he put his mind to.”
That included sports. Baseball came first, around the time the Vanderwerfs moved to East Tennessee when DJ, now 17, was just 7 years old. Football and recreational running happened later.
“I remember watching DJ chase around some of his friends after a youth baseball game one year,” Dan Vanderwerf said. “He was out there hopping around on one leg, and one of the opposing coaches approached me and said, ‘You know, I would have never known he had a prosthetic.’
“People are always surprised.”
Fear also is prevalent.
Dan was nervous when DJ, then in middle school, told him he wanted to play football. It wasn’t that he thought his son couldn’t do it.
He just didn’t know what to expect, or how his son’s prosthetic would fare.
“DJ reminded me of what my wife and I told him about saying ‘I can’t,’” Dan Vanderwerf said with a chuckle.
Other than a few broken feet on his prosthetic — a top-of-the-line model with a rubber sole and fiberglass casing that suctions to his leg — DJ says he’s never had any major injuries on the football field. He’s sure he hasn’t hurt anyone else with his prosthetic, either. His leg receives a heavy wrap treatment by the team’s trainer, Shawn Davies, prior to each game.
“I had concerns at first,” Moser said. “But I talked to his parents, and they said, ‘He’s done this before. He’s been released from the doctor. Turn him loose like anybody else.’”
Moser’s done that — first with DJ at tight end and defensive tackle and now as his starting quarterback.
“The first time I met him, we were going through quarterback drills,” Moser said. “He didn’t know the drills or the reads, and he’d get very angry when he didn’t do it correctly. You could just tell his competitive spirit.
“If you tell him he has limitations, he’s going to prove you wrong.”
Desire to inspire
On the back wall of Sweetwater’s football weight room, a message is written in blue letters:
“SHS Attitude and Spirit Breeds Success.”
DJ Vanderwerf learned that message at a young age, long before he ever donned Wildcat blue and yellow. He copes with his congenital defect through humor, and his Christian faith.
“Mainly, I like to play jokes on people,” DJ said.
Tamara says he was always like that. She remembers him being young — somewhere between 9 and 11 years old — and pretending his leg was a guitar or air rifle.
“He would whip it off whenever he wanted and entertain others,” Tamara said.
DJ admits he’s had some “Why me?” moments. But they don’t happen often, and are usually short-lived.
He’s accomplished plenty. He has a 3.8 unweighted GPA, though he’s unsure what he wants do study in college, which he hopes is the University of Florida. He occasionally runs in 5Ks in support of Amputee Blade Runners, a non-profit organization that provides grants to amputees. The organization helped Vanderwerf acquire his current high-tech blade.
Now he has a chance to lead Sweetwater to the football playoffs.
“I really do believe that God put us here for a reason,” DJ Vanderwerf said. “And I believe he gave me what I have here for a reason. To inspire other people, and show them anything can be done.”
Chris Thomas covers high school sports. Follow him at twitter.com/christhomaskns.