HAMMONTON - Friday was easily one of the greatest days in Jared Sanchez's football career.
The junior running back and safety played a key part in Hammonton's 23-17 win against Timber Creek in the South Jersey Group III final, running for 36 yards on six carries and playing stellar defensively from his free safety position.
But ask Sanchez what the worst day of his football career was, and there is no hesitation - Sept. 11, 2007.
"That day haunts me like anything," an emotional Sanchez said after the game.
Playing in the second game of the season for Hammonton's freshman football team in a game at Atlantic City, Sanchez made an awkward tackle and took an opponent's knee to the top of his helmet.
"I blacked out," Sanchez said. "I woke up a couple seconds after the hit and really didn't know where I was at."
Sanchez was rushed to the hospital for an MRI.
"I thought I was going to the emergency room for a mild concussion because that's what they told me it was," said Michelle Estrella, Sanchez's mother. "We get there, and they do an MRI, and they say he's got a fractured neck and he's not leaving. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I just wanted them to fix him."
Sanchez had fractured the C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck.
Sanchez was told by doctors he might never walk again.
"Doctors said I was never coming back to play football," Sanchez said. "I was in the back telling the doctor and telling my mom I don't know how long it takes, but I guarantee everyone I would be back on the field."
Turns out, Sanchez is a man of his word.
He had an initial back surgery at the hospital.
He needed a second back surgery after the vertebrae shifted back out of place as Sanchez tried to come back prematurely to play baseball at the end of his sophomore year.
"I've been playing football since I was 6 years old, and it would have killed me if I was on the sidelines," Sanchez said. "The doctor crushed my dreams telling me I was never going to play football again, but I wasn't going to let anybody bring me down, anybody."
Hammonton coach Pete Lancetta said Sanchez was a big reason the Blue Devils went 11-1 this season and won the S.J. Group III title as the No. 2 team in The Press' Elite 11.
"I don't know that we would have been here tonight without Jared Sanchez, on both sides of the ball," Lancetta said. "He did a phenomenal job all year long. He's been a very, very integral part of this team this year, no question about it."
Lancetta admires Sanchez's grit and determination.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't know if I would have been out there," Lancetta said, had he been faced with Sanchez's situation. "I love football, and I don't know if I would have been out there.
"He's got tremendous courage, tremendous character and like I said, we wouldn't be out here without him."
Estrella said she never doubted for a second that Jared, the second of her four sons, would play football again.
"He was a born fighter," she said. "When you tell him he can't do something, he's going to give you 120 percent just to show you he can."
But her confidence in her son's ability and toughness doesn't make it any easier to watch him take some of the pounding he does game in and game out playing on both sides of the ball.
"Every time he goes down for a tackle or takes a hit, I stop breathing for a minute," Estrella said. "But I've told him over and over again, don't stay down too long. Mom's nerves can't take it."
Contact John O'Kane: