November 21, 2016. Bellevue West junior Joe Dolincheck steps onto the field turf at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. His right hand is heavily padded and taped. There’s a broken bone in his thumb. But this is the state championship game. He’s decided to play.
Dolincheck is the quarterback for Bellevue West. He’s right-handed. His doctor and his parents didn’t want him to play, but Dolincheck told them he had to. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “To be honest, it was hurting going into it,” Dolincheck said. “But once the game got going, I didn’t even feel it.”
Dolincheck led his team to a big win: 43-6 over Omaha North. It was the first football state title in Bellevue West’s history. Dolincheck completed nine passes on 16 attempts for 163 yards and one touchdown. The numbers aren’t dazzling for a state champion quarterback. They’re almost unbelievable for a quarterback with a broken thumb on his throwing hand.
His memory of the game is enlightening. “It was fun. I played pretty well,” Dolincheck said. “I threw a pick though. I was scared they were going to hit it (his thumb).”
The interception. That’s the first memory. Not a touchdown, which Dolincheck threw 25 of a season ago. Not the yards, of which there were more than 2,800. It’s the interception that haunts him, even in a 37-point win.
Head coach Mike Huffman has something to do with this. “Our guys, if they throw interceptions, they can’t play,” Huffman said. He calls his offense “The Cadillac,” and whoever has the keys better know how to drive.
And Dolincheck does. Huffman trusts Dolincheck to a degree almost unheard of at the high school level. Huffman gives Dolincheck nearly full autonomy at the line of scrimmage. When Huffman says it’s like having another coach on the field, it’s not lip service. Dolincheck is a de facto offensive coordinator.
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“I just give him a play. He calls the protection and direction,” Huffman said. “He’s an incredibly smart player.” There are college quarterbacks who don’t get anywhere near that much freedom.
Dolincheck has put in the time, spending his 45-minute study hall, every day, watching film. It’s paying off in spades. This season, he’s thrown 34 touchdown passes and only five interceptions, while racking up 2,183 yards through eight games. The Thunderbirds are once again poised to make a deep run in the playoffs with Dolincheck at the helm
None of it — the state title, the broken-thumb heroics, the multitude of touchdowns — might have happened, but for an injury to another player. Dolincheck’s path to the forefront of the Thunderbird offense has been one rife with adversity and, according to Huffman, a strong desire to prove his coaches wrong.
As a freshman, Dolincheck played quarterback but also spent time at defensive end. Huffman says the staff teased Dolincheck, telling him he was destined to play defense.
“He looks like he should be playing guard,” Huffman said. “He’s 220 pounds.”
Dolincheck persisted but didn’t win the junior varsity quarterback job outright, splitting time with another player as a sophomore. In his junior season, he lost a tight battle with sophomore Evan Keiser for the varsity quarterback spot. Huffman preferred Keiser’s superior running ability, but he still wanted to use Dolincheck.
“I would run two series at a time, then the other one would go two series, and in the second half, it was whoever was playing better,” Huffman said. “Honestly, the other kid (Keiser) was playing more.”
When Keiser tore his ACL four games into the season, it was Dolincheck’s job. “He’s never looked back,” Huffman said.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.