Luke Higgs comes from nowhere to lead Hilton Head Christian defense

ccox@islandpacket.comNovember 20, 2013 

The dog tag hanging from Luke Higgs' neck often leaves bruises on his chest once the junior slides on his football pads.

But the temporary pains have little ill-affect on the Hilton Head Christian linebacker. They are instead a joyous remembrance of the father's footsteps he continues to follow in.

"I wear it every day," he said of the tags he made in his father's honor. "It's always a daily reminder of how I'm living my life as a man of God, and how I'm supposed to look after my mom and sister."

Bill Higgs was always hesitant about his son playing football. The former University of South Carolina defensive tackle and linebacker learned about the sport's unforgiving ways all too often, as eight knee surgeries took their toll on a worn body.

He didn't want to see his son suffer a similar fate, Luke said. So when Bill passed away from lymphoma in June 2011, his son abondoned the game to focus on less physically demanding sports, particularly baseball.

"I wasn't strong enough, and I was afraid I was going to get hurt," he said. " ... So I just decided to take a couple years off. The guys always kept annoying me every year to play football."

Brad Meccariello and Alex Cooler knew their friend would find his release on the football field. So they repeatedly pushed him over the next two seasons to come out before finally pulling out one final stop earlier this year.

They called his mom.

"I was so excited because I played with him in middle school and growing up," Meccariello said. "I knew how good of a player he was. I have always wanted him to play."

Luke sat down with his mother, Barbara, to discuss his options. He turned to his father, too, wondering whether he could overcome his fears after a two-year hiatus from the game.

"It weighed on me a lot," he said. "I always looked up to him; he was my best friend. We did everything together. But I prayed about it, thought about it a lot and gave it some time because they had been bothering me about it for a long time.

"When they came back again, I thought it was time. I felt like I was strong enough and I wanted to show what I could do."

He came out to practice just before the Eagles' fourth game of the season. He strapped on his helmet and pads -- complete with the dog tag that bears his father's name and birthday -- while his teammates wore shorts during a walkthrough.

Nothing else seeemed out of place, though. He led the team in tackles and notched an interception in his first game, a 48-41 win over Northwood Academy, and has since averaged about 10 tackles per game, coach Ryan Mitch said.

Hilton Head Christian does not keep defensive statistics, so his worth won't be known to the average fan. But his coaches and teammates realize what he's brought to their team, which have included a couple fumble recoveries and a blocked punt against Hilton Head Prep.

"We were excited just because Luke is such a good kid and so well respected and so well liked by everybody," Mitch said. "I haven't heard anyone say anthing other than he's the single greatest kid they've ever met. He's incredible."

The Eagles defense gave up an average of 40 points per game prior to his arrival. That number dropped by two full touchdowns once Higgs stepped out on the field. The same ferocity his father played with has helped Luke right a defense that struggled during the first part of this season.

The junior has never seen film of his father during his playing days. And yet, he still believes he plays with the same reckless abandon as the man who wore tape on his teeth when referees walked by to check mouth guards.

"He was kind of a hard head," Luke said, laughing. "But he played tough."

Luke does, too. His work on the field has helped lead Hilton Head Christian to Saturday's SCISAA Class 2-A state championship, where the Eagles will go for a third straight title against Florence Christian.

It will also represent another chapter in Luke's unique return to the game his father loved.

"It was rough during that time when it happened," Meccariello said. "He's really matured from that situation and really seen it as more of a blessing for his dad to be in a better place. I think he's living that out each day."

He will live that out once more Saturday in Columbia, in the city where his father played college ball. And when Hilton Head Christian takes the field, Luke believes his father will be there, too.

"He's looking down on me just as much as God is," Luke said.

SCISAA CLASS 2-A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

Who: Hilton Head Christian Academy vs. Florence Christian

When: Noon Saturday

Where: Charlie W. Johnson Stadium, Benedict College, Columbia

Cost: $8 adults, $4 students, $10 parking

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