WASHINGTON - Each of Air Force’s injured seniors found out their college football careers were over in different ways.

Defensive end Zach Payne blew out his knee during a midweek practice. Center Michael Hester was given the bad news that he had a broken bone in his foot a couple of weeks after suffering what he thought was a bad sprain. Linebacker Jordan Waiwaiole laid on the turf at Colorado State’s Hughes Stadium in Air Force’s regular-season finale, grabbing his shoulder and hoping he hadn’t lost a chance to play in a bowl game.  

Like their teammates, the three injured seniors made the trip to Washington, D.C., for Wednesday’s Military Bowl, which will pit Air Force against Toledo. As the rest of the Falcons finished their final bowl practice at St. John’s College High School on Monday, the injured seniors were rehabilitating, getting their bodies healthy even though they are unlikely to play football again.

“You always want to play, especially knowing it’s all the seniors’ last game and you want to be out there with them,” Payne said. “You have to do what you can, and stay positive.”

Hester leaned on crutches as he talked outside of Air Force’s locker room after practice. His left foot is still in a walking boot. He hurt his foot on Air Force’s game-winning overtime touchdown against Navy on Oct. 1, but he didn’t realize for a while that would be the final play of his career.

He was disappointed when he thought he would miss just a stretch of games against Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State with a sprain. Three weeks later the doctors re-examined him because it wasn’t improving, and X-rays showed a break in a small bone that helps connect the ankle to the foot. He said he was devastated to hear he was done for the season. He said he has gotten over it, but being at the bowl game without any hope of playing isn’t easy.  

“It’s tough,” said Hester, who had four screws and a plate inserted into his foot. “You look forward to your last season of football your entire career. But you have to support them in any way you can and not let them see you down, be positive the whole time.”

Waiwaiole hurt himself against the Rams while rushing the quarterback. Air Force hoped he had just injured his acromioclavicular (AC) joint, which would have given him a chance to play in the bowl. X-rays showed a break in his scapula, and that meant his career was done.

“It’s not a fun feeling,” Waiwaiole said. “You know you can’t do anything about it now. You just move on and help the guys under you step up.”

Payne didn’t have any regrets on coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He wanted to return for the Army game Nov. 5, did make it back and helped the team clinch the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. A few days later, his knee buckled in practice and he needed season-ending surgery.

Not being able to play is a tough blow for the three seniors, but Payne said he was still having fun being around his teammates and experiencing the bowl festivities.

“I’m still enjoying it,” Payne said. “I’d love to be playing and wish I was. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but here.”

Contact Frank Schwab: 476-4891

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