There are few places Ryley Harlow would rather be than a football field.
"It's my passion," the Chesterton senior said.
Slowly but surely, a bulging disc in Harlow's neck took that away from him last season.
"It just got to be too much pain," he said. "It got to the point where I couldn't even curl 15 pounds. I knew something was up."
After gutting out it for six games, Harlow went to school trainer Bernie Stento, who sent him to Lakeshore Bone and Joint, where he got the diagnosis. Vertebrae were pushing together, the result of too many head impacts.
"You lose a guy like that, it literally takes a part of our offense away and left a huge hole on our defense," Trojans coach John Snyder said. "He's so disruptive. Probably the best thing you can say about him is he's a true football player. He's one of those down and dirty kind of guys you have to have."
Harlow was Chesterton's most valuable offensive lineman as a sophomore and junior, but he and Snyder both knew his workload had to be reduced to keep him healthy and productive. The choice was to keep him on defense full-time. Still, Harlow is one of only two Trojans playing two ways, seeing about half the snaps on offense at tight end.
"He's valuable securing the edge," Snyder said. "He does a great job 'fitting up.' He doesn't lose his balance. He finishes blocks. He pays attention enough that we can put him in any spot. At his size (235 pounds), he's arguably one of the best linemen I've ever had. He's just a great high school lineman."
On defense, Harlow's strength and relentlessness have been an integral part of a Chesterton front that's as good as any in the area.
"He plays hard, with a motor, an attitude," Snyder said. "You like to have players with a little edge. He's also smart enough to not hurt the team. He was a little out of control last year. He's matured this year. He's strong, athletic. He's got a good awareness of where the quarterback is, where the ball is."
Harlow loves the get after it nature of defense.
"Low man wins, especially line-wise," he said. "It's how quick you get off the ball. On defense, you just need to go. I don't think it's anymore than to just go and keep going, doing whatever it takes. There's nothing else. I just love doing it."
Over time, he's also learned to make his aggression work for him and the team, not against.
"It comes with experience," Harlow said. "You see things, catch on to what people are doing. I watch film this year more than I ever did. I'm paying more attention to the little details. I'm playing the same way. I'm just seeing things better. I've got more of a feel for things."
Harlow missed both Merrillville games last year, including the overtime loss in the sectional semifinal. The Trojans play the Pirates tonight in the same position, for the the third year in a row, and Harlow's raring to go.
"I live to play for sectionals, the playoffs," he said. "It's no fun sitting out. I would've given anything to be out there (last year). The seniors have been together since eighth grade. They're all I've known for five years. It's a big group. We're best friends. We love what we do. If we lose, I won’t play with them ever again. That's the only thing on my mind. The only thing that matters to me is winning the sectional."