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WHS grads scale top of Shasta’s grid depth chart

Steve Yingling

Maybe they really are brothers. As much as apartment roommates David Atherton and Dylan (Gibbs) Thomas share in common, it’s understandable why students on the Shasta College campus in Redding, Calif., believe the inseparable young men are genetically linked.

For starters, their numerous broken bones and torn ligaments probably have them knowledgeable enough to open their own orthopedic office.

They graduated a year apart at Whittell High School. Dylan in 1995 and David in 1996.



They lived apart for three years after high school and decided that life was better together.

They’re two of football coach Craig Thompson’s most intense and hardworking players, but to look at them, you would never guess that they excel between the goal posts.



They’re both starters for one of California’s remaining unbeaten junior college football teams.

“David, in a sense, has always been my brother; I’ve known him for so long. To me, he is the hardest worker I’ve ever known and he’s given me the inspiration to work harder than I ever have,” said Thomas, who will make his first start for Shasta against Merced on Saturday.

Like a supportive brother, Atherton adds, “He’s my inspiration, too. We’ve been best friends since the seventh grade. Having him and Shane Dolan as roommates has kept my head on straight. They’re always so positive and those clowns keep me laughing.”

Based on their medical records neither should be on a football field today.

Thomas underwent three kneecap operations during his junior and senior years at Whittell, missing most of two seasons with the Warriors.

Doctors advised him to save his knees for walking, forcing him into a three-year retirement.

But his equally-injury prone “brother” talked him out of his Southern California existence and back onto the gridiron last spring.

“Doctors said I should never play physical sports again, so it’s a dream come true that I’m playing again,” Thomas said. “I’m not doing it for anybody else but me. I knew I had something else to give and I’m doing it for my love of the game.”

Despite a prolonged layoff from the game, Thomas’ progress has provoked Thompson to reshuffle his lineup.

“He started off rusty and you could tell he had been away from the game for awhile, but he has made steady improvement. He worked his way up to a second-string strong safety position and from there we decided to switch personnel because it was a way to get our best 11 on the field,” Thompson said. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm and plays with total intensity.”

Current Whittell High football mentor John Summers, who coached Thomas as a freshman, liked the kid’s grit and determination.

“He was a pretty tough kid who practiced a lot with our varsity in 1992. He was a kid who always liked to stick his nose into it,” Summers said.

Atherton has been down a similar road of “Terminator”-like reconstruction.

The 21-year-old running back missed all of last season because of torn anterior cruciate knee ligament. In 1995 a benign tumor was removed from his left leg and the year before he was sidelined by arthroscopic surgery to his left knee.

“That’s always how it’s been for me. It’s just another obstacle, and that’s how I like it,” said Atherton following ACL surgery last fall.

At the time, Atherton, the 1995 Nevada 2A player of the year, didn’t now how difficult his latest comeback would become.

“I’ll be honest, I was in nothing but a rage this last year,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be part of football again. My knee is more important than football, but there’s something about football that sticks in my blood and I can’t get rid of it.

“I’ve never been through anything like it. It was torture, all of those little knee exercises and riding a bike every day.”

If anyone is suited for torture, it’s Atherton.

“I only coached him as a freshman, but every time I saw that kid he was working his butt off. He would come up to the school at 6 a.m. in the spring and summer and run when it doesn’t really count, and not a whole lot of kids will do that,” Summers said.

The Atherton and Thomas bond only severs when Thompson tells his squad to hit the showers.

“After practice David will still run a gaser or two. He has no problem with it. He’ll ask me to stay, but I’ll say, ‘It’s all you, David. It’s not for me today,'” Thomas said.

Hence, it’s understandable why Atherton has become the undefeated Knights No. 1 running back after starting the season third on the depth chart.

“Just to see him out there hasn’t surprised me at all because he’s such a hardworking man and a great team guy. He understands the role he stepped into and he’s kept the same level of play so that the team can have the same level of success,” Thompson said.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Atherton didn’t like returning for his final season of junior college ball buried on the depth chart like he was as a freshman.

“To tell you the truth after knee surgery I was excited that I could still play this sport, but that was a hard time in my life. Third string was hard on my ego, especially because I worked so hard this summer and was the only running back to stay at school and work out.”

The numbers are starting to pile up for Atherton. When the Knights No. 1 running back Jeff Dennis went down with a partially torn meniscus against College of the Redwoods in game three, Atherton stepped in and rushed for 59 yards and scored on a 29-yard screen play.

“Our offensive coordinator is tough to impress, and when I scored on that screen play he was the most excited guy on the sidelines. That was the most exciting feeling I’ve had in football because he’s one of those guys you want to work harder for and show him that you can impress him,” Atherton said.

Given his first college start last week against Solano, Atherton responded by rushing for 139 yards on 16 carries, including a 54-yard touchdown scamper as Shasta squeezed out a 39-36 victory.

“To rush for more than 100 yards after knee surgery that was one of the best feelings I’ve had in football,” Atherton said. “Beating Manogue my senior year is something I’ll never forget, but being at another level and rushing for 100 yards, this is even more memorable.”

Thomas had only one response for what unfolded before his eyes.

“That’s my brother. That’s all I yell, and he’ll yell the same thing to me from the sidelines. It’s a perfect situation because it’s offense and defense,” said Thomas, who played on all of the special teams prior to his promotion.

Atherton’s standout performance didn’t go unnoticed as the local radio station named him the Coca-Cola player of the game.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better kid,” Summers said. “He’s a good example for our kids for someone who has worked real hard. He’s committed to the cause and doesn’t find excuses to do other things.”

Someone without an extra-large heart wouldn’t have played in that game. Atherton dislocated his finger in practice that week, needing 10 stitches to cover exposed tendons. The trainer knew how badly Atherton wanted to play and just told him to make sure he taped the finger.

“My finger is fat and disgusting looking, but it was my chance to show the coaches that I could play. I get offended when people don’t think I can accomplish something,” Atherton said.

Thompson, a third-year coach, realizes how important the Whittell products are to the chemistry of his surprising team.

“What they bring to us is they only know how to do things one way, and that’s with maximum effort, full speed and they do it until the job gets done. And they have a lot of fun with their teammates, keeping things fun out there. Sometimes we get too serious and it’s great to have their fun personalities around,” Thompson said.

With their bodies finally functioning at near 100 percent, Atherton and Thomas are focused on helping the Knights to their most successful season in over a decade.

“Right now we’re sitting on something so great. We’re 4-0 and have the No. 1 quarterback and offense in the state. It’s gotten to the point where guys on the team are excited about the way I’m playing, and I just have to keep doing it,”Atherton said.

Having a “brother” to share it with makes it all the more special.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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