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HOLMDEL -- St. John Vianney High School football coach Jeff Papcun recalls "freaking out" on his team during a practice in late September of 2022 as his team prepared to face Marlboro in the team's fifth game of the season while under very difficult -- somber, even -- circumstances.

Just days earlier, in a 32-0 St. John Vianney win over Manasquan on Sept. 23, 2022, then-senior Aaron Van Trease suffered a fracture of his C-6 vertebrae during a collision while playing on the Lancers defense.

The injury left him without the use of his lower body and during the days, weeks and months that followed, the priority of Van Trease's coaches, teammates and friends was providing tangible and emotional support for Van Trease and his family.

Aaron Van Trease on the St. John Vianney sideline. (Photo: Steve Meyer)
Aaron Van Trease on the St. John Vianney sideline. (Photo: Steve Meyer)

With the team riding a four-game winning streak and the horrific injury still fresh on the minds of the players, St. John Vianney's players wanted badly to win their next game for their fallen teammate. During this particular practice, however, Papcun's defense was not making the proper checks at the line of scrimmage while working on the defensive game plan for the week.

After hearing enough of his coach riding him and his teammates, senior captain Christian Buchanan chimed in with a retort that was less an excuse and more a harsh reality.

"He (Buchanan) turned to me and went, 'Coach, Aaron normally does that,'" Papcun said. "I had to take a step back and go, 'Oh, crap. You're right.'"

It was a harsh reminder that Van Trease was more than just a senior quarterback and safety who chucked passes and shut down an opponents' passing game; he was a coach on the field.

Papcun lost a coach on the field for the remainder of the 2022 season, but on Friday night against Manasquan -- the team against whom Van Trease suffered his injury -- the Lancers head coach had an extra headset reserved for their newest assistant.

In his first game back on the Vianney sideline, Van Trease was not only treated as the guest of honor by his alma mater and former team; he got to participate in the game in an unofficial coaching capacity.

"I have always been interested in the coaching side and it's something coach and I have been talking about for a while now," said Van Trease, who listened in on the coaches' communication Friday night and even offered his insights while watching his first live SJV game since the injury. "I just love the game of football and I want to continue to be around it in any way I can, so tonight was a great opportunity to experience it from a different angle."

From the time he and Papcun began mapping out this potential return to the sideline, Van Trease saw it as an opportunity to learn what life as a coach is like and to prepare himself for a potential new chapter to a football career that was dramatically altered nearly one year ago.

Aaron Van Trease tapped into the headset on the St. John Vianney sideline. (Photo: Steve Meyer)
Aaron Van Trease tapped into the headset on the St. John Vianney sideline. (Photo: Steve Meyer)

"This was the first time I really dove in on a game plan and actually prepared like I was going to play or coach in a game," Van Trease said. "I have seen some highlights on Hudl and made some observations, but this was the first time I wanted to watch film and look over the game plan. It was really cool to see that side of it and then to listen over the headsets to everything that's going on. As a player, you don't realize how chaotic it is for the coaches too. You know how it is on the field, but it can get a little crazy on the sidelines too."

Papcun sees this knew partnership as more than just a learning experience for Van Trease. The benefits work both ways.

"He is still on our Hudl, we still call him and we still give him a game plan every week," Papcun said of Van Trease. "He actually said something to me today, I adjusted to it on the field and it started working. We normally try to go fast, but he thought we should slow down, see how the defense is lined up, then call the play. It worked out well for us."

With their former teammate back on the sideline for the first time, the Lancers played an inspired first half, but ran out of steam in the second half in losing to Manasquan, 21-12. The dynamic, according to Papcun, was similar to the one he observed last season, when St. John Vianney defeated Marlboro nine days after Van Trease suffered his injury, then could not sustain the emotional apex.

Following a 5-1 start to the season, St. John Vianney lost its last four games of 2022 and has now opened 2023 0-4.

"Our emotions actually might have been too high," Papcun said. "The adrenaline kind of died down in that second half. Overall, especially the older guys who played with him last year, they are here to play for him. They want to keep playing for him and that's the way we want it. We're family and he is part of it."

If the Lancers need any motivation whatsoever to get back to work at practice in hopes of turning the season around, they need not look any further than Van Trease. Their former teammate has been performing seven physical therapy sessions per week over the course of five days with the goal of one day walking again. According to Van Trease, his condition has already dramatically improved, particularly the use of his hands.

Aaron Van Trease with St. John Vianney assistant coach SHannon Hoadley. (Photo: Steve Meyer)
Aaron Van Trease with St. John Vianney assistant coach Shannon Hoadley. (Photo: Steve Meyer)

"My hands have come a very long way," Van Trease said. "Just being able to do small tasks, like brushing my teeth, that you really take for granted before an injury like this. You can tell from day-to-day, week-to-week that everything is getting a little bit easier.

"I'm definitely getting better at tapping into the muscles in my lower body as well. You have to look at it day-by-day, week-to-week. It's such a slow-moving recovery and you have to work at it every day, but I'm definitely seeing progress, getting stronger and putting weight back on. It's going about as smoothly as it can."

While putting in the rehabilitation work, Van Trease has found inspiration in both the people who have encouraged him and those who are facing what he is facing during various stages of the recovery and rehab processes. He took in words of encouragement from Eric LeGrand -- the former Rutgers defensive lineman who was paralyzed during a college game in 2010 and has since become a public-facing figure and advocate for people living with severe spinal injuries.

"Eric is a huge figure," Van Trease said. "Everyone knows Eric. He visited me with his mother and they were awesome.

Van Trease is undergoing his rehab at Project Walk in Mount Laurel and Atlantic Physical Therapy. He said his trips to Mount Laurel have been particularly inspiring because there is a sense of share goals and togetherness in meeting them -- not unlike an offseason weight room for a football team.

"I go a place called Project Walk in Mount Laurel and being down there, seeing other people in my position with all the same goals -- some people are a little bit earlier on and some are farther along in the process," Van Trease said. "Seeing them all working hard doesn't do anything but inspire you. Everyone feeds off of each other's energy."

Van Trease has felt the love over the past year and Friday was another step by him to go from an inspired high-school student in need of inspiration, to a resilient high-school graduate who is fast becoming a source of inspiration.

"When he comes around, there are nothing but smiles because he has a smile on his face," Papcun said. "He is such a positive kid and he brings that positive attitude to everything he does. We need that right now, so he is still a really important member of this team and this family."


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