CANTON— Jay Nightingale is a member of a strong group of seniors at Canton-Galva High School and a team captain on the Eagles football team, which is No. 1 in 8-man Division-I football. Eagles' coach Shelby Hoppes even considers Nightingale one of the top centers in the state. However, last year, Nightingale encountered a near-death experience off the field that made him more cautious from his surroundings.

After the first day of practice, Nightingale, along with his dad, girlfriend and her dad, drove down a dirt road where they collided with another vehicle. Nightingale was in the backseat minding his own business until he was t-boned. Nightingale was rushed to a nearby hospital in Wichita. Luckily, there were no life-threatening injuries, and he left the hospital on the same night.

"I'm extremely grateful. I thank God every day," Nightingale said. "I thank the people in the hospital, my parents, everybody. It's because there was a good chance I could've died, but I didn't so, I'm extremely grateful for it, looking back on it honestly."

As Nightingale returned home, his teammates and coaches came by to visit him after hearing the news. When Hoppes heard about the accident, he was in complete shocked but was glad that he was okay.

"I was at work when Arlon, Jay's father, contacted me and told me Jay had been in a car accident," Hoppes said. "He told me they were taking Jay into the hospital, and it was a very serious situation. I was relieved later on that evening when I received the phone call telling me that Jay had only suffered minor injuries."

After he checked out, the road to recovery began. For the first five to six weeks, Nightingale was inactive. He missed all of fall camp and sat out in the first three games on the Eagles 2018 season.

"Anytime you have a player in the situation Jay had been in, football is the least important thing," Hoppes said. "Jay wanted to be with his teammates out on the field, but the most important thing was making sure he was 100 percent healthy and wasn't going to have any lingering issues that could affect him later on in his life. Once he was cleared by his doctors to return to play, my staff and I eased him back into things. With football being such a physical sport, we wanted to take all precautions making sure Jay was good to go both physically and mentally."

Canton-Galva prides in its strength and conditioning program, and Nightingale, who was already in football shape before the accident, had to start over from scratch. Week by week, Nightingale had to work his way back into physical strength. The first week, it was light jogging. The week after, he was able to practice, but only with his helmet. Days later, he practiced with his helmet, shoulder pads and girdle. Nightingale believed the conditioning side was the toughest part in his progression.

"I was definitely rusty, especially during conditioning. Throughout the summer, I was conditioning and everything—strong and healthy, and then for five, six weeks, I couldn't do anything. So coming back to conditioning was kind of difficult."

Finally, Nightingale was able to practice in full pads and returned to the starting lineup at the center spot on the fourth week when the Eagles faced Bennington High School. The Eagles won that night, 56-32. The Eagles went on to finish the year at 10-2, and only one game shy of making it to the state championship. Nightingale, who started nine games that year, received all-state honorable mention in 8-man football and first-team all-league honors. As a returning senior, Nightingale, a four-year starter, is the centerpiece on offense that averages 56.5 points a game. He has high aspirations of leading the undefeated Eagles team to their first state championship in program history and bringing a winning culture in the program.

"One thing that I really wanted to accomplish was changing the culture," Nightingale said. "I know the other guys in my class—we have a great class, have that same common goal. Change the culture and get us to a winning culture. I think we accomplished that this year."

"I can't even begin to describe how important Jay is to our offense and our team," Hoppes said. "He is the leader of the offensive line. He has to know not only what his job is on every play, but what the jobs of his teammates are as well."

Since the car accident, Nightingale learned to be more aware of his surroundings. It is something he will remember whenever he is on the road.

"I pretty much learned to pay extra attention than everybody else when I'm driving and everything," Nightingale said. "Just be careful with everything that you do. It was a pretty, God-life lesson to learn."

Contact Peter Holland Jr. by email at pholland@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow him on Twitter@Petes_Picks_