Today, we catch up with 2011 American Family Insurance ALL-USA football player Jace Amaro of MacArthur (San Antonio), who is a junior tight end at Texas Tech. For more than 30 years, USA TODAY has recognized the nation's top high school athletes. We are digging into the archives and checking in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades.
Jace Amaro was having a great game against West Virginia last season when he took the hit.
A few minutes after turning a short pass into a 61-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, the Texas Tech tight end reached for a high pass, only to get the wind knocked out of him when Mountaineers linebacker Terence Garvin's helmet hit him in the stomach.
Amaro caught a few more passes in the second half, but knew something was wrong.
"I just couldn't breathe anymore," Amaro said.
As a precaution, he was hospitalized after the game and he found out he had a grade-3 lacerated spleen and internal bleeding that required 6 1/2 units of blood.
"I could have gone out that night after the game and I wouldn't be here now," Amaro said.
Clint Killough, now a wide receiver at Incarnate Word, was Amaro's quarterback at MacArthur and has been his regular workout partner since the eighth grade. He said that Amaro's decision to continue to play in the game after the injury is a good example of his competitive fire.
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"You have to take your hat off to people like that," Killough said. "How many football players would play another quarter of football with that going on? When we were kids, Jace was never the best athlete. He was never the fastest or caught the most passes. There was one thing about Jace that stood out. He always had that fire, that something. He just wouldn't be denied. It didn't matter what it was, you just knew there would be a way."
VIDEO: Amaro's big game against Stephen F. Austin
Texas Tech lists Amaro at 6-5 and 260 pounds. His combination of height, strength and mobility make him a matchup nightmare for opponents. Perhaps not wanting to disclose to rivals that Amaro would be out, Texas Tech listed Amaro's condition first as a rib injury, but Amaro was in no shape to play football for months.
"It hurt every time I walked, every time I moved, every time I ate, every time I laughed," Amaro said.
He made it back for the Red Raiders' Meineke Car Care Bowl defeat of Minnesota in December, but said he didn't feel fully recovered until this summer. This season, he wasn't on the watch list for the John Mackey Award that goes to the nation's top tight end. Instead of considering it a slight, Amaro tweeted, "I don't deserve to be on the "Mackey Award watch list" because I have done nothing to be on it. & anyone who says I should be is 100% wrong."
Since then, he's showed why he should have been on the list. He leads the Red Raiders with 29 catches for 397 yards, tops among Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends. He also leads the Big 12 with 12 receptions on third down. Another statistic that stands out is his 7.67 yards-after-catch average.
"Hands down, the reason for that is my conditioning," Amaro said. "The coaches have been doing a great job of getting my power level up. I worked as hard as I possibly could during the summer. I take a lot of pride in my work ethic. I have the mindset that nobody is going to outwork me. I know the coaches get mad at me because they're worried I'll wear myself out in the season, but I know how much I can take."
Amaro is already being talked about as a early-round draft pick. Two questions NFL scouts are likely to have for Amaro involve two incidents, one off the field, the other on it. The first came when Amaro was arrested, along with teammate Kenny Williams, for credit card fraud for an incident at a Lubbock bar during their freshman years. The charges were later dropped. The other came in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Minnesota, when he was ejected for punching Gophers safety Derrick Wells.
"The credit card thing was something that could have been prevented," Amaro said. "It was a lack of knowledge on my part. I got in a bad situation.
It had nothing to do with me being me. We didn't really do anything wrong. With the (punch), I kind of just reacted. You need to learn to control yourself in those situations and realize you can't do that in a game. Any one of the coaching staff would tell you I would be the last guy they would expect to do that."
Because he's such a frequent pass target, Amaro isn't known for his blocking. That didn't prevent him from putting his left shoulder into Texas State safety Aaron Matthews, violently knocking Matthews off his feet and springing Derreck Edwards for a big pass play on Sept. 21.
"The coaches put a lot of emphasis on blocking downfield and keep going after the play," Amaro said. "The opportunity was there. I know my blocking hasn't been as noticeable, but I think that's my best asset. I just haven't had that many opportunities to block."
Texas Tech wide receiver Bradley Marquez said the play inspired the Red Raiders.
"That was a big play for us and got us going," Marquez said. "It ramps up the energy any time, whether it's on the road or at home."
While his father Bob also played tight end at Texas Tech, Amaro was more focused on other sports growing up. At MacArthur, he played football, basketball and was a state runner-up in the shot put.
"I think it is really important to play a lot of sports growing up if you really want to be a tight end who is able to run and block," Amaro said. "All the basketball I've played has helped me run and I even played soccer up until high school. Football is a lot of different movements and I've always been able to move quickly."
After a 4-0 start that includes a win over then-No. 24 Texas Christian, the Red Raiders are No. 22 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. That's a long way from being ranked No. 7 in the Big 12 preseason media poll.
"When those things are put and out and said about your teammates, it's almost like disrespect," Amaro said. "They don't know how many hours you've put in the weight room. The (Big 12 poll) definitely motivated us because we feel like we're better than other teams."