Julian Higgins Scarsdale football photo

Julian Higgins takes off for the end zone on a touchdown carry vs. Mamaroneck.

One day can change your entire life.

Scarsdale senior Julian Higgins has experienced that, both for the worst and the best, multiple times as a high schooler. He’s just one of those people who doesn’t let the worst get the better of him.

As a sophomore, during his second season of varsity lacrosse, Higgins, who hadn’t been feeling well earlier in the day, was found passed out and hemorrhaging on the floor of his bathroom, and soon enough in the emergency room seeking answers to his sudden health concern while his teammates were tearing it up on the turf without him. He remembers it was May 13, 2019.

Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, would temporarily derail his athletic career as would a bout with mono that took away half of his junior season of football and then COVID-19, which robbed him of his entire junior season of lacrosse, and altered his senior year of football, moving it to the early spring and shortening it.

Between Crohn’s and asthma Higgins is high-risk for COVID-19, so he’s also had to be even more careful. “It’s been an endless cycle of working through stuff,” he said. Now that he’s double vaccinated he’s been able to get out even more and feels safer around others.

Instead of having a “Why me?” attitude with the constant setbacks, Higgins focused himself in the classroom and on the playing field to overcome every obstacle that was thrown at him.

“Dealing with these types of things that come out of nowhere at you and are surprises to you, the way he approached all of it with a positive attitude really shows how tough he is not just physically but mentally and emotionally,” lacrosse coach James Synowiez said. “That says a lot about a high school kid who can get through these things and still be smiling at the end of the day. I think he’s definitely grown from that experience and it’s going to aid him for the rest of his life.”

Following the eventual diagnosis, Higgins started out getting infusions every two weeks at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, later every four weeks, then eight, now back to four. “It’s been a lot of adjusting because I have to be conscious of what I’m eating because my body has changed a lot,” he said. “Maintaining weight and maintaining a healthy weight has been a lot more difficult. Freshman and sophomore year I would be lifting a lot and I saw a lot of actual progress in my ability to weightlift. Junior year and now senior year it’s a lot harder to gain weight and build that muscle. My body can’t really handle eating a lot of food at once. I had to learn about my body.”

Senior Noah Ebner Borst and Higgins became friends in French class freshman year and also connected on the football field as Ebner Borst was the JV QB, and in lacrosse they got called up to varsity together. Not having Higgins there for so many extended periods of time was worrisome, but Ebner Borst always kept in touch and noted his best friend’s “strong character and humility.”

“We’ve been best friends and the craziest part of this whole thing is if you don’t ask him about it, about all the appointments he has, he’s never complained,” Ebner Borst said. “You wouldn’t even know except for the portion of the season he missed. He doesn’t miss practice and you never heard about it.”

No longer was Higgins taking things for granted. It wasn’t about if he was going to get his homework done, but that he needed to get his homework done without any excuses.

“I changed my mentality about how I approach things,” Higgins said. “I’m really kind of happy that I’ve gone through so much at a young age because I like the person that it’s changed me into. I’m happy I learned the things I have. These are life lessons not everybody is going to experience when they’re 16 or 17 years old, but I’m glad I’ve learned now in hindsight.”

Higgins, a two-way starter, was contributing the first three games of his recent senior football season. He carried the ball eight times against Port Chester for 26 yards. Against Suffern he had five carries for 16 yards and a 38-yard reception. White Plains he was four for 24 on the ground, but had a key 90-yard kickoff return in a 21-14 victory.

Then came Mamaroneck, another day that had a life-changing impact for Higgins. This time Higgins got the ball 11 times and ran for 158 yards in a 34-0 blowout win, scoring touchdowns on runs of 51 and 67 yards. It was the breakout game he’d been waiting for for nearly two years. Higgins finally showed the athlete he’d always wanted to be — always expected to be.

“When Coach Verboys was talking before the Mamaroneck game he was like, ‘You will remember this for the rest of your life,’” Higgins said. “He wasn’t lying. It’s surreal and I can’t stress how much it’s meant to me to be on this team and have the ability to play this season. I just can’t take it for granted.”

For the Mamo game the Raiders switched up the offense to put Higgins in the spotlight. Instead of two halfbacks and a tight end, the Raiders went with two fullbacks in the backfield.

“I had never been a fullback in this way,” Higgins said. “I’ve been a running back in pistol, but never where it’s take the ball and run downhill and see if you can find a gap. In the second half when I found that first run for like 50 yards I was just running behind my guys to see what I could do here and then when I broke free I was like, ‘Just run.’ That was my instinct. Coach stresses that I have speed and I just have to get downhill. I don’t know where it’s come from, but I feel like I’m a born athlete and I just wanted to show it in that moment.”

He’s a team player who never asks for the ball, but Verboys knew it needed to be in his hands on that day.

“After that game he was like, ‘Coach, do you mind calling Case Western? I think I want to play,’” Verboys said. “I made the phone call in a heartbeat. That’s an easy sell. They’re DIII and I looked at the roster and he has the athleticism to do that. It’s more the mindset that it’s not like high school. You put your time in and he has the mindset for that. Some kids are ‘I’ oriented and it doesn’t work. He’ll do whatever he can to help a team.”

Verboys said coach Greg Debeljak was “ecstatic.”

With another 50 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Tappan Zee in the fifth and final game of the season, the 274 yards on 36 carries on the season may not seem like much, but for Higgins it’s as good as gold.

“He’s been special in the program — the role model that I expect my players to be — and he does it in the quiet way,” Verboys said. “He’s not a captain, and yet he does what our seniors are asked to do. Even though he doesn’t have that title I look at him as though he is a captain.”

Higgins didn’t start playing football until eighth grade. He was a soccer and lacrosse player and his friends finally convinced him to bring his physicality to the gridiron. He’d been sticking with soccer partly because his sister, Olivia, was a standout and he saw it as a “family thing.” All it took to get his football career started was an email to Scarsdale Youth Football president Rippy Philipps.

“I just loved it,” Higgins said. “It was the best. We had practices three times a week after school and it’s my favorite sport ever and I just got to play with my friends. It turned out I had more friends playing football than soccer or lacrosse at the time. I figured out I was a running back and I really liked that. I just got a good feel for it. I liked playing for the coaches and with my friends.”

The two years on junior varsity under coaches Chris Pierro and James Serafin were crucial to Higgins learning more about the nuances of the game and he really took off, starting on defense and running back.

Higgins did break his collarbone in the final game of freshman year, but he felt like that was almost like a right of passage in the sport.

“That last game of the season was like my first real high school football game where we were playing hard and it was really physical and a challenging game,” he said. “That was really meaningful.”

Sophomore year of football the team was 5-1 and the guys were excited to join varsity the following fall. Higgins was a touchdown machine on JV, but he knows nothing compares to succeeding at the varsity level.

Being on the field against Ossining as a junior was the first time since May of sophomore year that Higgins “really felt healthy.” “I felt like I actually performed and I felt like my old self,” he said. “My stomach wasn’t hurting and I didn’t feel like I was going to pass out as previously I might have.”

Verboys was keeping an eye on Higgins on JV and knew he was getting a smart player with a quick twitch who also had speed and vision. Junior year Higgins just hadn’t yet reclaimed his mojo.

“That’s a lot of checks in the greatness side and it was so nice to see him have that breakout game,” Verboys said. “He’s worked through everything and things didn’t line up, but they lined up perfectly for us against Mamaroneck. To be a senior and to be blessed to be able to play this season and to do what he did was just something you love as a coach.”

The kickoff return against White Plains and the two TDs vs. Mamo are three plays Ebner Borst is going to be talking about for a long time.

“Now that he’s seen what it’s like to not be able to play, to have to endure that for months and months, he just takes every opportunity he can playing the whole game both ways and he just keeps going,” Ebner Borst said. “He does everything with his full heart. He’s all in, which is incredible considering that with Crohn’s it can be very draining. You see the outcome of that kind of mindset he has.”

Ebner Borst said Higgins is vocal when he needs to be, but most effectively leads by example. “I look up to him and I know tons of younger players do and I don’t even know if they all know about this,” Ebner Borst said. “I smile thinking about him. He’s one of my best friends ever on and off the field.”

When Higgins was called up to varsity as a freshman five games into the season with Ebner Borst, Synowiez said it was his “tenacity” and his work ethic in practice, always wanting to improve himself and those around him.

“He’s always been fast — that’s always been one of his greatest assets on the football field and the lacrosse field — but his aggressiveness and his tenacity are pretty much unmatched,” Synowiez said. “He sticks with guys defensively and his footwork is there. We were really impressed with that at a young age.”

Just as lacrosse started in the spring of sophomore year, Higgins’ parents separated and it was the first major adversity he’d dealt with personally. “That was difficult trying to stay focused on a sport and have a lot going on outside in your Higgins life,” he said.

On top of that it was May 13 when he had the “horrible event.”

“I was shocked,” he said. “I was hooked up to an IV for two weeks and I didn’t know what was going on with my life. I wanted to be playing sports.”

When he was finally released from the hospital he was able to rejoin his team on the sidelines for the playoffs against Lakeland/Panas, but he was unable to participate in anything physical for three months as he had lost a lot of weight and was anemic.

While Higgins is a success story now, there were definitely concerns about not only his physical well-being, but his mental state as well.

“Just seeing how defeated it made him feel and look, our whole team felt that way as well when he couldn’t be with us every single day in practice or compete with us in games,” Synowiez said. “The energy he brought to the team, even though he couldn’t play, was unprecedented because we hadn’t seen him in so long. Everybody knew what was going on, but nobody wanted to talk about it because they were sad for their friend. When he came around there was energy just from having his presence there.”

Then just as he was cleared right before the football season something else didn’t feel right. It was mono, which cost him not only four games, but his anticipated starting spots on both sides of the ball. “I was just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said.

It was hard for Higgins to stay focused, but he wasn’t going to let these hurdles stand in his way.

“I think I just learned a lot through working through these not even injuries, but these personal things that have come up,” he said. “I was trying to stay positive. I feel like so many people would have got their head down and been negative about everything. I could have quit football and quit being an athlete entirely because working through it is a lot harder than not. I could say it’s too much, that my body’s not built for it. I just decided I didn’t want to do that. I just enjoyed it so much. It brings me so much joy to be an athlete that I wanted to keep doing it.”

Never having had a full varsity season Synowiez said going into this season he wasn’t totally sure where Higgins would fit in, but that sophomore year he was a top defensive midfielder, playing longstick and shortstick middie, and also offensive midfield, so there is a key spot Higgins will fill.

“He is someone we definitely want on the field in a Scarsdale uniform because he’s such a difference-maker,” Synowiez said. “[Sophomore year] he really was aggressive on defense and he would take it personally if someone beat him. He wanted to know how that happened, why that happened and to not let that happen again. He’s the type of kid that when a mistake is made he wants to know he can correct it for the next time.”

Like the Scarsdale football and boys lacrosse teams, Higgins embraces the underdog role and has worked hard to become the top dog.

“We’re OK with being the little guys,” Higgins said of football. “We’re just going to show we can grind out wins. I think that’s going to carry over to lacrosse. I think we’re going to be a defensive team and a physical team that might not be able to score a lot of goals, but like in football be able to grind out wins by showing we can outlast some teams.”

Whether it’s the playing field or that part of his life no one sees, instead of ceasing to be in control, Higgins has seized command.

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