JAY — Doctors have told James Ouellette that he has the right knee of a man 60 or 70 years old. It has cost him much of his basketball career at Spruce Mountain High School.

A month into his senior year, Ouellette experienced something no man should endure until he is a ripe, old age: Saying farewell to a parent. Words fail to adequately describe what it cost him.

Ouellette’s father, also named James and affectionately known to lifelong friends in Jay as “Jimmy,” died from suicide on Sept. 30. He was 47.

Two nights later, having exchanged his familiar No. 45 for his father’s No. 30, Ouellette, played on. He led the Phoenix defense to an important win at Poland. A cerebral middle linebacker with the gift of anticipation and a knack for solo tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Ouellette was named a Campbell Conference all-star and Sun Journal all-region performer.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Ouellette said. “He was my coach until eighth grade year with the (Area Youth Sports) Jets. He was always my biggest supporter with football. Football was his favorite, just like mine.”

As fall gives way to winter, Ouellette, his twice-reconstructed knee and his grieving soul have found refuge inside the domed gymnasium at Spruce Mountain, preparing for one more run at the sport that has inflicted the most physical pain.

Spruce Mountain, hard-hit by graduation and facing a beefed-up, multi-conference schedule in Class B South, will look to the leadership of a player short on varsity experience but wise beyond his years.

“Along with the knees, no high school kid should have to go through that much,” Spruce Mountain coach Scott Bessey said. “That’s a great endorsement for high school athletics. That’s what it’s all about.”

Double whammy

Ouellette’s first knee injury was not a catastrophic, one-time event. At the end of his freshman basketball season, he was stricken with pain and swelling that wouldn’t go away.

A post-season examination revealed bone deterioration typically observed in a senior citizen.

“The inside of my bone died, so they had to put three screws in, then take the screws out six months later,” Ouellette said. “So it was like a nine-month recovery. They said over multiple impacts it can happen.”

Ouellette returned to make an impact at the end of his sophomore football season, then emerged as one of the top players in the league as a junior.

His continued improvement in basketball earned him his first varsity start on Dec. 23, 2014, at home against Maranacook. Ouellette was still on the court sealing the victory in the final minute. He leaped to save a missed free throw from going out of bounds and passed the ball across his body.

Then he landed awkwardly. The searing pain was immediate. An MRI on Christmas Eve confirmed his worst fears. Ouellette tore his ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus and was diagnosed with hairline fractures in both lower leg bones.

“I didn’t know of any trainers or physicians that were ever going to give him the green light to play sports again,” Bessey said. “God love him, he was all positive, all the time. I never said any of it to him, but in my conversations with everyone else, it was like, ‘How does he come back from that?’ It wasn’t fair.”

Eight months of physical therapy, endless stationary bike rides, ice and elevation later, Ouellette received that approval, just in time.

“I was most upset because I knew (the injury) would affect football,” Ouellette said. “It was hard, because I think I only got cleared to run, full-on sprint, like two weeks before double sessions. It was waiting on the brace to come in to start contact. I didn’t have much time to get in shape. It’s been a process. It still is.”

Gone too soon

Ouellette rehabilitated, and excelled in his healthy moments, while life grew more complicated off the field.

As Jimmy and Rachel Ouellette went through a contentious divorce, James’ father withdrew from friends and family. He was rarely seen at his son’s sporting events.

“He was a superhero to me growing up. He and my brother Skip were best friends, graduating in 1986 at the same time,” Bessey said. “He was going down a wrong path for a while and almost brought James with him. There’s nothing good about it, but if there was anything good, it’s that there had been some separation growing for a while. To have it end like that was devastating for a lot of people, but for James especially.”

James learned of the death on a Wednesday morning, two days before the game at Poland. Lifelong friends and teammates Andrew Darling and Sebastian Lombardi spent the day with him and encouraged his decision to play.

The jersey switch was the idea of assistant football coach David Frey. Teammates used a chalk marker to write a glowing ’30’ on the back of each black helmet.

“They made it as easy as it could be,” Ouellette said. “I know that Coach (Walter) Polky, Coach Bessey and Coach Frey, if I ever need anything I can call them. Everyone on both teams was there for me all the way.”

Even as some of them continue to grieve, on their own time, in their own way.

“He was definitely going down a bad road. I didn’t see it ending this way,” Bessey said. “I was thinking no matter how bad it got, James would keep him going. It’s confusing, because now I’ve got kids, and I can’t imagine not being around. James is accomplishing things in high school, doing some awesome things, and the fact that he missed all of it is confusing.”

Healing on the hardwood

Basketball now takes over as the primary piece of Ouellette’s healing process.

He admitted that it’s hard for a non-athlete to understand. Most nights and weekends are spent with a cold compress on the aching joints.

“Sports keep me busy, which is really nice. It’s always something to do after school,” Ouellette said. “Basketball always gets me in the best shape.”

Bessey remembers doubting whether or not Ouellette would return from his freshman medical issues.

“I know a lot of kids I’ve been around that probably would have packed it in after that,” the coach said. “Then to have almost worked his way back and have it happen again. I have him in my back pocket when the jock-hating starts. What would have happened to him (without sports)? It’s scary to think, really.”

Ouellette is a minimalist on the basketball court, according to Bessey. He finds the easiest, most efficient, calculating way of doing things, even at the risk of frustrating his coaches who might question the effort.

He also has a sly side that reminds many of his father and makes them smile.

“People that don’t know him that well wouldn’t be so quick to call him a good kid. He’s going to be a little sneaky, challenge things, you know what I mean? In some ways, I like that about him,” Bessey said. “He has the mind and the intelligence of a high-caliber athlete. The way that he sees the game, the instincts that he has, if he had to work as hard as everybody else without those instincts, I don’t think he could make it back.”

Ouellette plans to continue beating the odds in football. He intends to enroll at Bridgton Academy in hopes of getting notice from Division I or II recruiters.

“They do a really good job getting your name out and getting you in college football shape,” Ouellette said. “I’ve got to get a lot more cut and toned.”

Tall, strapping, often smiling. That’s the combination Bessey saw one summer evening when he first met an eighth-grader at a graduation party for his nephew, Jake. Once he confirmed the boy’s last name, he knew to whom he belonged.

Then the kid showed up at summer basketball. The coach felt as if he were in a time machine.

“It’s scary how much he sounds like Jimmy,” Bessey said. “Looks like him, talks like him, but a way better basketball player. And I would tell Jimmy that, too.”

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2015-16 Winter Preview

Who to watch in high school sports this season:

Boys’ Basketball: 

Girls’ Basketball: Winthrop returns to varsity schedule

Boy’s Hockey: Edward Little looking to make a name for itself

Swimming: Lewiston’s Matt Charest gets a lift

Indoor Track: Soracco’s back in track for Lewiston High School

Wrestling: Dirigo aims to be class act, again

 Girls’ Hockey: Lewiston sets out on a different path

Nordic Skiing: Ashley Pratt, Emily Thibodeau look to lead Leavitt


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