During Thanksgiving, Sho Watanabe will have plenty of reasons to give thanks.
The fall of 2011 is so much better than what took place during last year's football season. There wasn't much of a season for the Estancia High senior last year.
During preseason practices, Watanabe tore his right ACL and was out for the season. He didn't play a game for his new team. He had just transferred in from Newport Harbor and was ready to make an impact.
But then came the season-ending injury.
"It was devastating," Estancia Coach Mike Bargas said. "It was on the first day of our two-a-days. I'm sure he was feeling really bad and maybe second-guessing himself [on the transfer] too."
Transferring to Estancia had seemed as if it went smoothly for Watanabe. He grew up in Costa Mesa and played for the Costa Mesa Pop Warner program with many of his teammates now on the Estancia team. He said he moved back to the Costa Mesa area and was eager to play for the Eagles.
Unfortunately for Watanabe, his Estancia debut began with adversity.
"I didn't play my entire junior year," Watanabe said. "It sucked watching everyone play. I was just supporting the team pretty much. It was still fun."
Watanabe has had more fun this year, helping the Eagles reach unprecedented heights. Last week, Estancia won its first playoff game in 31 years. The Eagles also beat cross-town rival Costa Mesa to capture the Orange Coast League championship in the regular-season finale.
But the grand feats did not come without some challenges. Watanabe, a defensive back and wide receiver, broke his left ring finger during the 35-14 win over Laguna Beach Oct. 14. He said it happened while he was blocking.
"It was painful at first," said Watanabe, who was also the team's back-up quarterback before the finger injury on his non-throwing hand. "I've gotten used to it. I'm able to play with it without realizing it's broken."
Watanabe thought about his broken finger but for a split second during a big play last week. He intercepted a pass and ran it back 65 yards for a touchdown. Before noticing open field ahead of him, Watanabe worried that his finger, with the foam and tape around it, might get in the way of his interception.
But 65 yards later, his finger was the last thing on his mind.
"After the injury I knew I was going to keep on playing," Watanabe said. "No matter what the doctor said I would keep playing. It's not the same as a knee injury. I knew I would be able to tape it up and play."
Watanabe wanted to make sure he played this season. After the 42-7 win over Magnolia, the Eagles will play in Friday's quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Southern Division playoffs. They play against Woodbridge at Irvine High, starting at 7 p.m.
"It's been a really amazing senior year," Watanabe said.
He was grateful for being named the Daily Pilot Football Player of the Week, but he made sure to give credit to his teammates and coaches.
"We've done so well this season because we've been coming together as a team," Watanabe said. "Playing as a team has really gotten us through the season. A lot of the credit goes to the coaches."
Watanabe said the team's unity resembles a family. He refers to his teammates as brothers.
"We've been playing this season for this community," he said. "We're all in it together. The players I'm playing with we're like a family; we just work on everything together. I'm going to miss being around everyone when it's over."
Watanabe's real family is also important and a big part of his love for football and sports. Watanabe also excels in baseball.
His mother, Yumi, is the cheerleading coach at Estancia. His sister, Micaiah, 11, plays softball and the youngest sister, Mackenzie, 8, cheers with the Costa Mesa Pop Warner cheerleaders. Watanabe's stepfather, Sean Patterson, is a coach for the Costa Mesa Pop Warner program.
Watanabe wants to make them all proud as he tries to make the most of his senior year. He wants to continue to make big plays just like the 65-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"He's just a really good athlete," Bargas said. "He was our back-up quarterback. He can also play wide receiver and he solidifies the defense for us too. But more than that he's just a great kid."
Bargas' team will go through a walkthrough Thanksgiving morning. After practice, the team will gather for some snacks. Watanabe will be hanging out with his brothers.
At some point during Thanksgiving, maybe Watanabe will think about his broken finger and how it couldn't get in the way of a big play. It couldn't even get in the way of a remarkable season.
Born: Sept. 17, 1993
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Weight: 170 pounds
Position: Cornerback-wide receiver
Coach: Mike Bargas
Favorite food: Fried chicken
Favorite movie: "Superbad"
Favorite athletic moment: "Winning the CIF playoff game with my brothers (teammates)."
Week in review: Watanabe returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown to help Estancia earn its first playoff victory in 31 years.