After Car Crash, Lake Travis Standout Works to Return to Football
By Cody McCrary
Sammy Ochoa stands alone in Lake Travis High School’s weight room.
It is 8 a.m. on a rainy March morning and his only companions are the exercise machines surrounding him. Silence fills the room as he begins his daily routine.
This solitude is something Sammy knows well.
On Oct. 24, in the middle of his junior football season, Sammy, a 17-year-old standout defensive tackle, was involved in a two-car collision near Southwest Parkway and Highway 71. The 2010 Infinity he was driving was totaled. Sammy suffered serious injuries to his face, ribs, an arm, a leg and his shoulder, and he spent almost a week in the hospital and longer in a wheelchair.
The day brought Sammy’s football season to a halt, and college recruiters stopped calling. He was forced to shift his focus from making tackles to making slow, sure steps toward recovery.
“It’s just more motivation to get back faster and stronger than before,” Sammy said. “That is what I look to every time I am in pain or tired or breathing hard. I think that’s probably the most pain I will ever feel in my life is getting into a car accident. In the end, [all of this work] is worth it.”
The soften-spoken 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound student, whom Lake Travis head football coach Hank Carter describes as “probably the most physically imposing kid in (the) program,” is now fighting an ongoing battle.
“Just holding my arm up for a minute is hard now,” Sammy said.
While his teammates spend their spring semester maxing out in the weight room, Sammy does curls with 25-pound weights, half what he used to do. Fumbling with a squat machine, he concedes, “I used to lift a lot more before the accident.”
But in these weak moments, Sammy chooses to find clarity.
The accident tested his mental toughness and, he said, gave him “a different mindset on everything, not just football.”
He cheered from the sidelines as undefeated Lake Travis won game after game, including a victory at Westlake, the Cavaliers’ biggest rival. He celebrated with his teammates as Lake Travis took a 16-0 record into the Class 6A, Division II state championship game in Houston. And he anguished at that game, as the Cavaliers lost to Katy.
“Obviously (not) playing all 16 games, you know an additional eight games, he lost the opportunity for the college coaches to see him perform,” said his father, Omar Ochoa.
So, while his teammates and friends went on official recruiting visits and got offers to play in college, Sammy tried to find hope in 25-pound curls.
He arrived at the weight room before anyone else, blasting rap music through the speakers and pushing through the pain and uncertainty.
“Just really thinking, ‘Is it worth it?’” Sammy said. “Yeah, it is definitely worth it, and in the end, it will be. I want to go to college, and I want to go to college on an athletic scholarship, so it really is my main goal.”
Carter said he believes Sammy could be ready by summer and that there will be no hesitation in his game.
“I think that once they see that he still is powerful … he will have opportunities to go play at that level and at big time college football,” the head coach said.
In the meantime, Sammy patiently works toward his return.
In the weight room, his eyes shut as he felt the weight of each curl. Bulging purple scars crisscrossed his arm and leg. He didn’t stop.
In late March, one of his teammates, safety Austin Hiller, announced his commitment to Northwestern University on Twitter. Sammy hopes to make such an announcement someday.
“Basically, I just want to show [colleges] that I healed up faster than a normal person would and not to look the other way,” Sammy said.
“They should be keeping their eye on me.”