HUNTERSVILLE – Every day at SouthLake Christian Academy basketball practice, James Dantzler would slip into line to participate in a drill.

“James, are you cleared to play yet?” coach Rodney Monroe would ask.

“No sir.”

“Well, get back on the sideline.”

It went on fall and winter. Dantzler, a senior, was itching to return after a serious knee injury wiped out his football season. Basketball is his strongest sport, but he wasn’t cleared by doctors to play.

It didn’t prevent Dantzler from being an integral part of both teams. From the sideline, he offered encouragement and pointers. He was at every practice and every game.

Hot days. Cold days. Have-too-much homework days. He was always there.

His knee ached. So did his heart.

“It hurt real bad,” Dantzler said. “There were times when they’d be practicing and I’d turn my back. Look out into space. I took the attention off myself and gave them all my energy. I was probably the loudest person at our games. I was the biggest cheerleader.”

The injury details are vivid. He was playing cornerback in a scrimmage Aug. 7 against Concord Cannon. Triple option left, toward him. In position to make a tackle.

“I tried to wrap him up and when I grabbed him my body went one way and my knee went the other way,” Dantzler said. “Instantly, I heard it pop. I felt it pop and I knew something wasn’t right.”

Dantzler had torn his anterior cruciate ligament  (ACL). Surgery was Aug. 28. A blood clot developed in Dantzler’s shin, which forced him to take blood thinners.

Doctors told Dantzler the recovery period was 4-6 months. At the four-month mark, Dantzler’s doctor told him he’d need six.

“I didn’t like that,” Dantzler said. “I thought I was good at Christmas. I got really upset.”

He didn’t sulk during rehabilitation. He showed up every day, slipped into line and waited to be spotted. Monroe would look at the trainer for a signal. Nope. 

Sometimes it would be a laughing matter. Other times not.

“When they could really see it in my eyes that I wanted to be out there, they would give me the serious talk,” Dantzler said.

He never got into a basketball game. Monroe was counting on Dantzler, who had transferred from Victory Christian, to perhaps be a starter.

“He ended up being inspirational, not only to the coaches, but to the players,” Monroe said. “He’s a high-energy kid who always seems to be upbeat. He was like having another coach. I’d let him say something at halftime a few times. He’s on their level.”

Dantzler’s goal is to walk-on to play basketball at Davidson College.

Monroe said he can see Danztler being a great college student, walk-on player or coach.

“James has that type of personality where he can connect with people across the board – black, white, young and old. This kid is a joy to be around,” he said.

What has six months of being sidelined taught Dantzler about himself?

“I may not know what I want to be, but I know what I don’t want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be someone who’s going to fail, quit and then cry. I want to be someone who can make a change and make things happen regardless of the circumstances.”

Dantzler saw a chance at redemption – SouthLake’s baseball team. He hadn’t played since T-ball and coach-pitch more than a decade ago. Didn’t matter.

He had an ally in SouthLake coach Michael Causey, who raved about Dantzler’s attitude when he helped during the Junior Eagles Football Association (JEFA) last summer. Causey also tore his ACL as a high-school star in Wilmington, and knew part of what Dantzler was battling physically and mentally.

Dantzler begged to be on the baseball team. He made it. Right fielder. Little experience. Tons of energy.

 “He’ll go home and practice because he’s one of those kids who doesn’t like being a weaker link,” Causey said. “He’ll do what he’s told. He’s a strong-minded kid with a strong heart. I think he’s very prepared for what the Lord has for him.”

Dantzler will get the chance to pull on a SouthLake jersey.

 “It give me goose bumps, like a little kid at Christmas,” he said. “I’m here and I’m going to do whatever it takes to be the best. If it’s really in your heart to do it, it’s not your last chance. You can play at the next level. There is really no end. The end is when you quit trying.”