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UNBROKEN SPIRIT KEEPS CANYON RECEIVER GOING.

Byline: GERRY GITTELSON Community Sports

CANYON COUNTRY - Kindly pardon Richie Wirthlin for a taking an extra moment to count his blessings on Thanksgiving weekend.

The Canyon High senior has overcome five major injuries during his four-year prep football career - broken wrist, broken foot, two broken hips (left and right) and broken hand - but he's emerged into the area's most dependable receiver entering Saturday's 7 p.m. Southern Section Div. II semifinal against visiting Valencia (9-3).

Wirthlin has 54 receptions this season - 20 in two playoff victories - for 830 yards and seven touchdowns for second-seeded Canyon (11-1), and he also has a league-best six interceptions despite missing one month while recovering from the hand injury.

``When I broke my hand this last time, I kind of asked, 'Why me?' '' Wirthin said. ``I'm just so glad I had one more chance to come back and be a part of this great team. It's good to be back. I can't think about injuries anymore. I just have to keep playing my heart out without caution. I just play as hard as I can, and whatever happens, happens.''

Listed at 5-foot-10, 151 pounds - an inch taller and a few pounds heavier than his true measurements, he said - Wirthlin usually is the smallest player on the field - but perhaps the bravest.

``You can't measure courage and heart by someone's physical stature,'' Canyon coach Harry Welch said. ``Richie Wirthlin is the least-heralded big-time player in Div. II. Without him, we're not getting ready to play on Saturday night, and I'm very cognizant of that.''

Among the attributes that set Wirthlin apart are blazing speed (4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash), dependable hands and natural instincts on defense. He also bench-presses 240, nearly 100 pounds more than his body weight.

In a 28-21 quarterfinal victory Friday at San Clemente, Wirthlin caught nine passes, scored two touchdowns and made two interceptions. His most impressive moment might have been an open-field tackle on San Clemente's 240-pound fullback, Josh Ferrell.

That Wirthlin remains an impact player on a team that is one victory shy of a section-championship appearance (Dec. 9 against Mission Viejo or Hart at Home Depot Center) is amazing in itself.

Prior to his first game as a freshman four years ago, Wirthlin broke his wrist, then his foot.

``Actually, when I broke my wrist I didn't tell anyone, because it didn't seem that bad,'' he said. ``I just did push-ups with my fist. Then I stepped in hole during practice and broke my foot, and the doctor said, 'Hey, let me look at that wrist, too.' It turned out my wrist had been broken for three weeks.

``I ended up walking out of that hospital on crutches and with my hand in a cast. Everyone looked at me and thought I'd been a car accident.''

Wirthlin missed nearly two months, then scored three touchdowns against Burbank in his second game on the frosh team. The following season, he was the Foothill League's top junior-varsity breakaway threat, averaging more than 25 yards per catch and scoring 12 touchdowns, three of them on returns.

As a junior, Wirthlin's first varsity season was a disaster. During the first summer passing tournament, Wirthlin suffered an avulsion fracture on his hip - caused when a ligament or tendon tears a piece of bone - and underwent four hours of surgery to reattach the bone.

``I went to run a route, turned, and it felt like a torn muscle, but I heard a pop,'' Wirthlin said. ``The doctors told me it was a pretty rare injury, because instead of the muscle tearing, it ripped off part of the bone.''

Just a few weeks later, Wirthlin began working out again and was close to being cleared when he broke the other hip because he was overcompensating.

``By that time, I was doing well and was almost full-speed, but it was still hurting, and I didn't tell anyone,'' he said. ``My other hip just popped out. We tried to pop it back but it turned out the hip was broken. I pushed too hard.''

This time, Wirthlin was placed in a wheelchair, but he again healed quickly and saw limited action at the end of the season as a defensive back and receiver.

Then Wirthlin, finally 100 percent healthy, dominated offensively and defensively last summer during passing tournaments, and it was clear he was primed for a huge senior season. After a strong start the first two weeks of the season, he broke his hand during a collision with an opponent's helmet at Simi Valley, and a team doctor immediately told Wirthlin the hand was broken.

Wirthlin, in tears, responded by kicking a locker, and Canyon ended up losing 34-27 to break a streak of 19 consecutive nonleague victories.

``I kind of lost it, because my hand is so important when you play wide receiver and defensive back,'' Wirthlin said. ``I'm just happy it healed so quickly.''

Everyone at Canyon shares the feeling. Wirthlin is a star player who undoubtedly appreciates the Friday night lights more than anyone.

Wirthlin, who said he would love to attend Brigham Young, isn't sure if football will be in his plans, so he has no option but to play every game as if it could be his last. The family legacy will live on because his brother Stephen is a talented sophomore receiver who starred on Canyon's JV team this season, and his youngest brother, Chris, is a talented youth-football receiver.

``Chris is going to be a good little player,'' Wirthlin said.

Wirthlin can provide plenty of tips - not just about catching a football, but about catching a break.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Canyon's Richie Wirthlin has caught 54 receptions this season - 20 in two playoff victories - for 830 yards and seven touchdowns.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 29, 2005
Words:967
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