The Haverhill Hillies' football season began without incident for senior wide receiver and defensive back Jeromy Waterman. Finally a starting position. Finally an offensive scheme that featured wide receivers. Finally a renovated stadium.

Waterman prepared for this season as he'd always prepared, working out every day from the last day of football season to the first day of training camp.

"I was in the workout room every day for two and a half hours a day," he said. "I knew this was it. I want to see this team progress."

In the team's second scrimmage against St. John's Prep, Waterman lined up outside at cornerback. On a play early in the game, he says he felt his knee "pop" as he backpedaled covering the opposing receiver's post pattern downfield.

"It tweaked," he said. "It just felt weak."

Sitting out the third scrimmage to let his knee strengthen, Waterman looked forward to running out on the Malden field to face the Golden Tornadoes on Sept. 11, the Hillies first game of the season.

"Being on the field is the best feeling anyone can have," he said.

In warmups, the sunny outlook for Waterman's senior campaign darkened quickly.

Running routes for then-starting QB Connor Tufts, Waterman says he remembers head coach Tim O'Connor telling him to run a simple route down the sideline to give Tufts an opportunity to practice his long ball.

"Coach wanted me to run a go route for Connor," he said. "I leapt, caught the ball, planted. And it was the worst pain I've ever felt in my life. I felt it twist, I felt it pop. I knew it was over."

Two weeks later, his fears were confirmed. After an MRI, Waterman learned that he'd torn his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee, an injury commonly known as the "unhappy triad."

His season, as well as his Hillies football career, was over.

Waterman had surgery on Oct. 7 and returned to the sideline he's loved since his freshman year. The transition, he says, from an on-the-field leader to an off-the-field motivator hasn't been easy.

"I still cry after every game," he said. "I want to fight with them. I want to be out there with them."

Head coach O'Connor, who said at the beginning of the season that Waterman was a consistent presence at the team's pre-training camp practices and workout sessions, acknowledged the void Waterman's absence has left on the field.

"He leads by example," O'Connor said. "We've missed a constant senior leader on the field."

From the injury's outset, though, Waterman has remained a strong presence on the sideline, at practices and team events.

"Of course," he said. "This is my family. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. This is our team, and I'm a part of it ... I'm not going to leave them. Never."

Assistant varsity coach Dante Gobbi has coached Waterman for four years and says his teammates and long-term love for football keep Waterman on the sidelines.

"We're a big family. These are his brothers, and that's what he loves," Gobbi said. "He's the type of kid that wants to be around football all the time."

The 5-foot-7 senior now takes the role of sideline leader, rushing to get teammates water, an extra football in practice or providing another motivating voice to young Hillies players.

"Just giving them tips," Waterman said. "Try to help out as best I can. 'Keep your head up.' That's it, that's all I tell them. Once your head goes down, someone else's head goes down, and it's a rippling effect. Can't have that."

Gobbi, who's coached at Haverhill for 11 years, says that Waterman's attitude has been consistent throughout his playing career. He added that as a freshman, Waterman already acted as if he'd been on the field for years.

"Used to call him Coach Waterman," Gobbi said. "He used to tell us what to do. How to run a play 'We should run this, run that' ... It's his enthusiasm. Whatever we ask him to do, he'll do it for us."

Born in Hatfield, Mass., in 1992, Waterman moved to Haverhill in 2001 with his family. He joined Haverhill's youth recreation football league soon thereafter, and fell in love with the game immediately.

"Since day one," he said. "That was it. I played volleyball, baseball, soccer. I did karate. None of them (were) like football."

A student at Pentucket Lake from third through fifth grade and at Whittier Middle School from sixth through eighth, Waterman played for the Haverhill Cowboys from fourth through eighth grade.

"It was the biggest thrill," he said. "Being 11, 12 years old ... being able to hit people."

As a freshman at Haverhill High, Waterman joined the freshman team, coached by Benny Scovotti and Gobbi.

"They focused just on getting us better," Waterman said. "They made us want to get out there, get hit, want to get hit, do it all."

He started at cornerback from the get-go, and joined the wide receiver corps later in the season.

"I liked going up over the receiver," he said, explaining his love for the defensive backfield. "And I loved going up over the corner. Freshman year was one of the best years I've had in football."

Three games into his sophomore year, while he was starting at wide receiver for the junior varsity team, Waterman was given the biggest football-related news of his life. He was being promoted to the big show, under the bright lights of Friday night varsity football.

"I was so scared," he said. "So nervous. The initial thought of playing varsity scared me, but after that first hit, that kind of gets flushed out."

Waterman started playing two games per week, on both the junior varsity and varsity squads, but separated his shoulder in a game against Methuen.

After the injury healed, he found out that he'd lost his starting position.

"I was (angry)," he said. "I had worked so hard. It's not fun being told that someone else has your spot."

Waterman, whose father passed away during his sophomore year, rededicated himself in the off season, attending every speed practice, agility workout and weight room session.

"I said, 'I gotta bust my ass. I gotta go all out,'" Waterman said. "I knew my Dad would never see me play in the stands again, and I wanted to make him proud."

Waterman said his father's death drew him closer to his Haverhill football brethren.

"When that happens, you need a family outside of your own family," he said. "That's what these teams have been, and I'll stick by them as long as they need me because they've stuck by me my whole life."

The hard work paid off. He took his starting wide receiver spot back his junior season, but only saw two passes thrown his way all season, the disappointing effect of a conservative offensive scheme.

"It was frustrating," he said. "But I was playing football. It didn't matter."

Waterman hopes to go to Bridgewater State next year and redshirt his freshmen year to heal his knee and a wrist injury that will eventually require surgery. He's interested in Bridgewater's criminal justice program and hopes to work on a SWAT team in the future.

"It's more thrill," he said, comparing it to the initial feelings he experienced playing football.

O'Connor said he appreciates Waterman's devotion to a Hillies team in the midst of a 28-game-long losing streak.

"It shows dedication to a program and someone who's not going to abandon their family members," O'Connor said. "He's shown the young kids that at any moment, your high school football career could be over."

The fact is certainly not lost on Waterman, who constantly preaches effort and dedication to his teammates in every facet of the game.

"You have to be dead after every play to know that you're going all out," he said. "There's nothing better than running out under the lights on a Friday night."

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