As South Fayette’s football team threw Hershey kisses in the air Dec. 7 to celebrate its spot in the PIAA Class AA Championship game, Roman Denson stood on crutches at midfield.
The Lions just defeated Hickory, 23-20, and after back-to-back games where the junior recorded key interceptions for South Fayette, it was a kick return that cut his season short.
Denson, a 5-10 defensive back, was injured on the opening kickoff against the Hornets when a defender grabbed his ankles and dragged him to the ground. He was on the field for several minutes before being helped off by the training staff.
The result was three torn ligaments in his right ankle.
As the South Fayette players boarded the bus for Hershey Dec. 13, Denson was having surgery.
As the Lions defeated Imhotep Charter to claim the program’s first state championship, Denson was forced to watch the game like many others, on television.
“There was no doubt that I wanted to be on the field or even be in Hershey with my team,” Denson said. “For me not being there, it just gives me another reason to get my team back there to share that experience with them on the field. It motivates me even more to win again and repeat it for my senior year.”
While Denson made his position look easy in the WPIAL Class AA title game by precisely defending Aliquippa’s Patrick Anderson, who holds several offers from BCS schools, the winter months were a more demanding task.
After four weeks of bed rest and six weeks on crutches, Denson was back on the field. Now, he’s ready to play wide receiver, a role left by Justin Watson, who will play football at University of Pennsylvania after breaking the WPIAL’s single-season receiving mark last fall.
Denson workouts were limited to a bench press and walking was a slower process than expected. Once the spring rolled around, he returned to the football field – working on lateral movement and basic drills to regain quickness.
Don’t count South Fayette head coach Joe Rossi as surprised. Denson is a leader in the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and has leadership skills that Rossi compares to Watson.
“He’s almost back to where he was,” Rossi said. “He’s still working and he’s about 95 percent. He’s looking good. He’s running past people and utilizing his speed. Roman’s an infectious kid to be around and he’s a hard worker.”
Denson slowly progressed during the spring. When South Fayette held a handful of passing camps, the senior was unable to compete in front of college scouts. However, one of the few he was able to participate in ended with a scholarship offer.
After catching passes from record-setting quarterback Brett Brumbaugh, University of Albany football coach Greg Gattuso, a former assistant at Pitt, offered Denson a scholarship. The Great Danes compete in NCAA’s Football Championship and had been following Denson since his sophomore year at Gateway.
Excitement overshadowed the grueling weeks of doubt and regret.
“I was holding my head down a little bit because everyone knew I was injured,” Denson said. “I felt coaches would shy away from me because of it. It was a blessing and made me motivated to get my ankle right for the season.”
The Lions’ ability to uphold their reputation as the best offense in the WPIAL may hinge on Denson’s surgically repaired ankle. Without Watson and receiver Conner Beck, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the WPIAL title game, Denson will be counted on to become Brumbaugh’s top target.
“This year, he is going to have to be the kid who becomes our home run threat,” Rossi said. “We feel pretty good about it after the season he had last year and the type of kid he is.”
Denson is embracing the role with open arms. He jokes with Watson about breaking his single-season receiving record and is also eyeing the school’s single-season interception mark of nine.
No goal is too lofty for Denson after returning to the field weeks before his surgeon expected.
“I play around with Justin all the time, but on the side, I’m actually serious about trying to go for the record he broke this year and try to do better than he did this year,” Denson said. “Even though I’m mainly a defensive player, it’s a goal to make myself better and to make my team better by pushing myself and pushing them to do better than last year.”