WVU football: Arlia back after Jet Ski accident
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- On New Year's Eve, Connor Arlia was riding a Jet Ski under the warm sun and atop the bright blue waters in the shadow of the famous Fontainbleu Hotel.
This was Miami Beach, a long way from Arlia's home in Weirton, where he was a two-time first-team All-State football star intent on playing Division I.
There he was, though, a walk-on receiver with West Virginia's football team and four days away from playing in the Orange Bowl against Clemson.
He'd earned it, hanging around during the regular season after playing special teams in the second and third games before sitting out the rest of the way. Against the Tigers and in the Bowl Championship Series, the Mountaineers would need him.
Tyler Urban was limited by injury and WVU had just three other inside receivers for a game where those three caught 18 passes for 259 yards and five touchdowns.
"That position was a pretty big part of our game plan," said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who last season was the inside receivers coach.
And on New Year's Eve, Arlia was to be included in that attack, something that made that carefree ride on the Jet Ski so much more enjoyable.
The next thing Arlia knew, he lay dazed on the shore surrounded by panicked onlookers.
"Everyone on the beach was freaking out and blood was just everywhere," he said.
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ARLIA PREFERS not to name the teammate and stresses it was an accident, but he remembers the water started getting rough when a wave picked up the teammate above Arlia. When the wave dropped the teammate down and picked Arlia up, their Jet Skis touched. The contact sent Arlia flying before he crashed into the water.
"I hit pretty hard and completely passed out in the water," he said. "I don't have any memory of what happened. I was passed out and someone helped me onto their jet ski and took me back in."
Arlia broke his right fibula and two ribs and had a bruised lung and a lacerated kidney.
Saturday night, fewer than four months later, Arlia is ready to play for the Mountaineers. He's a backup inside receiver on the depth chart and part of what WVU plans to do in the 6 p.m. Gold-Blue Game at Mountaineer Field.
"I feel like when you get injured like that, it's going to take a little bit of time to build it back," Dawson said. "I don't know if he's exactly 100 percent. He may be 100 percent physically, but he may not be 100 percent mentally back in it.
"And that's probably the case when anyone gets injured like that. You come back a little tentative until you take a few shots and get over that. But for what he's been through, he's been really good."
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THE 5 FOOT, 11 inch, 185-pound Arlia is behind a few players inside, but he knew that might be the outcome. While everyone was fighting to get better, he was trying to get back to normal.
The recovery started long before that in Miami. He was hospitalized and quickly joined by his family. So big was the opportunity in the Orange Bowl that Arlia's parents, Mike and Mary Beth, and his 7-year-old brother, Santino, were in Miami. So, too, were both sets of grandparents, Fidel and Wondalie on one side and John and Pattie on the other.
They were all at Sun Life Stadium when the Mountaineers crushed Clemson, 70-33. It was great medicine.
"At the time, it was really painful to watch because I felt I could have been out there making an impact, but it was awesome to be able to experience it," he said.
Arlia ended up riding back home with his parents, which he said was about as uncomfortable as it sounds.
He figures he was fortunate because he didn't need surgery for anything that happened in the crash. He just needed time and rest, which are pretty precious commodities in college football.
He had a walking boot for his leg, but there was nothing doctors could do for the ribs, lung and liver. He wasn't allowed to run or lift weights and he needed to have his urine checked regularly to make sure his liver kept healing and wasn't bleeding.
"The whole thing took me about eight weeks," he said.
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ARLIA MISSED winter conditioning and the beginning of the weight-training program before he was allowed to do some lifting. The 7-on-7 drills started without him, but he made it back in time for the last week and then was cleared for spring practice.
He had aches and pains from inactivity, but he pushed through them rather than sit out. His leg hurt when he ran routes and made cuts. He tired quicker than normal because the injuries and the time away from football had affected his breathing.
Slowly, he cleared little hurdles, physical and mental. He cut without consequences. His stamina improved. He got leveled by freshman safety Karl Joseph and felt fine after it.
It was only a few days ago when Arlia was talking to a friend and admitted he was back to normal.
"I feel like I'm good," he said. "I'm so excited for Saturday because that's my first game I'll get to participate in. I hope I get a chance to make some plays out there and help the team get better."
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THIS IS WHAT he's been waiting for. Arlia came to WVU because he wanted to make a name for himself. He was a straight A student at Madonna, the MVP of the North-South Game in 2011 and the winner of West Virginia's 2010 Wendy's High School Heisman. He talked to Harvard and Penn about playing in the Ivy League. Robert Morris, Carnegie Mellon and Davidson had partial scholarships to offer.
Arlia was invited to WVU's spring game last year and talked with Dawson afterward. On the drive home, Arlia told Mike and Mary Beth he wanted to go after his dream and play in Division I. He was eventually invited to WVU as a preferred walk-on and the Mountaineers thought enough of him last year that he didn't redshirt.
He's back to proving himself again, using his hands, routes and effort to become known as the walk-on who made it, as opposed to the walk-on from the Jet Ski accident.
"That's absolutely what drives me," he said. "The next big thing for me is performing in the spring game and making my family proud, making an impact for the team and making the players and the coaches proud by playing as hard as I can."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.