Christmas came early for Jonah Barber.
The senior guard for Discovery Canyon's football team had spent the last 23 games watching from the sidelines, rehabilitating first from a torn ACL in his right knee, then later after tearing the meniscus in his left knee, and had one fleeting wish before his career would come to an end, regardless of the Thunders' final result.
He got that wish Nov. 26 in Discovery Canyon's 17-7 3A semifinal win over Silver Creek, and will strap on the pads one last time at 1 p.m. Saturday when the Thunder (13-0) meet longtime nemesis Pueblo East (12-1) at District 20 Stadium for the state championship.
"At first, after the (meniscus) surgery, I was told I wouldn't be back without restrictions by Christmas time," Barber said. "I didn't take that news well. The doctor was happy with my recovery. He said I'd be able to play the last two games if we made it that far. That was amazing to hear. I felt so blessed. It was always in the back of my mind, but I had never rehabbed with any hopes to return."
Barber suffered a torn ACL during the 2015 opener against, incidentally, Silver Creek, on a non-contact injury when his cleats "dug into the grass" and then heard his right knee pop. Ready for a return heading into his senior season, he heard a similar pop from his other knee at a team camp at the Colorado School of Mines.
The injury was misdiagnosed at the onset, and Barber continued to work out in considerable pain until team practice started in mid-August. An MRI revealed the torn meniscus, but another long recovery lay ahead.
"He's always kept a positive attitude," Thunder athletic trainer Brian Hellstrom said. "He took on the challenge of working his way back both times really well. He came to practice and games because he wanted to do anything to help the team. In most players' minds, they're trying to get back on the field in times like these. It doesn't always work that way. Seeing Jonah in practice, I felt pretty good that he was going to be all right."
Mentally, Barber knew he was ready to play, and he said he had no doubts, physically, about taking his first hits and getting up.
But settling himself down proved to be his biggest obstacle.
"I didn't get much sleep the night before," Barber said. "I'm pretty sure I had a dream about the game, and how insane it was that I was coming back."
Except this game was real. Even the coaching staff wasn't expecting a comeback in a best-case scenario.
"We weren't sure he's ever make it back, and we were operating on the thoughts that he wasn't going to play," Thunder coach Shawn Mitchell said. "We knew there was the possibility that he could come back later on, but that was on the backburner. He stuck with it. It would have been easy for him to bail after two seasons of this. It does have a storybook ending to it. He stuck it out, and he gets to play, even in a limited capacity. He definitely paid his dues."
As the seconds ticked off the Thunders' semifinal victory, Barber was overcome with emotion, knowing his return would not be his last game. That will come Saturday.
"I was in awe, in tears, because I knew I'd get to play one more time with my team," Barber said. "I've been playing with these guys since I was in sixth grade, and we've become a tight family. It's been tough watching and not playing. I'm just happy to be back and playing."