by George Ferguson
It happened in the blink of an eye. An athlete's worst nightmare. It wasn't supposed to happen to him. When you're 17-years-old, strong as a bull and just as stubborn, injuries don't even enter your mind because you're invincible.
If it happened to Havre High senior Colby Mader. It can happen to anyone. That awful moment came last February at the All-Class State Wrestling Tournament in Billings. In a match he was winning, Mader got caught in an awkward position, fell backward and in that instant his right knee exploded.
Even though it was the end of his junior season, the first thought that burst into Mader's head were of his next year's senior football season.
"I love the sport of wrestling, and I always will," Mader said. "But the first thing I thought, was that I was not going to be able to play football anymore. At the time, I never thought I would make it back for this season."
In the weeks following the state wrestling tournament, most people agreed with Mader's assessment of his injuries. It turned out that he had completely torn both his anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament. He also damaged his meniscus in the process. It would be a month after the injury before he could even have the surgery that would put his knee back together because of the massive swelling just wouldn't go disappear.
Finally on St. Patrick's Day, Mader's knee was surgically repaired by Dr. James Elliot in Billings. Immediately after the surgery, Mader's worst fears were spelled out for him.
"Dr. Elliot is a great guy and he loves Blue Pony football," he said. "But at that time, all of the doctors told me that I would not be able to play football this year. It was something that was tough to hear at that time."
Normally most people that suffer knee injuries like Mader's generally take anywhere from nine months to two years to fully recover. But Mader has never been just anybody, and he simply wasn't buying it. Despite the obvious pain that he would have to endure in the coming months, he was bound and determined to play football in 2004.
His rehab was slow in the beginning. He started with simple leg lifts and gradually worked weights into the therapy. That was followed by a focus on regaining his balance on his right leg. For someone who mocked pain and liked to inflict it; this was real; this hurt.
The pain was something that Mader would gradually grow accustomed to. It couldn't be more agonizing than the prospect of sitting on the sidelines in street clothes during his senior year.
By late April steady progress was being made. He began to walk normally again and even run lightly. He used his summer to continue the long road to recovery. It was his goal, no matter what the doctors said. It can't be done? Watch me. They didn't know him. They didn't know how much this season meant and how special it could be.
August finally came and it was time for Mader to put all that he had gone through to the test. As the 2004 Havre High football preseason camp opened, Mader was again fighting the fears that first crept into his mind back in February.
"My first thoughts were what if this happens again," Mader admitted. "In the beginning, I was scared to put on any pressure on the knee at all. I just couldn't trust it at that point.
It is common occurrence for people who have gone through major surgery. It's a tentativeness that's hard to describe. An athlete starts asking himself questions that there are really no answers to without getting out there playing. Will it ever be the same? Will the knee take a hit? Will it blow out again?
"It has really only been in the last couple of games that I have started to fully trust it again," Mader said.
But he was making progress. He fought through the daily pain of playing football on a freshly repaired knee, and was on his way to proving everyone wrong. There would be no stopping him from starting in the season-opening game against Glendive, not even a fall on crutches that reaggravated some of the injury and pain.
"After I fell, people were telling me there was just no way I was going to play," he said. "But I just knew that I had worked too hard and I had put in too much time to get here. There was just no way I was going to sit this season out. Basically, I just accepted the pain and decided that I was going to play with it."
And it's precisely what he's done. Pain? He's already been through enough, what's a little bit more. Besides, his team needed him.
In his junior year, Mader earned first team all-conference honors linebacker and fullback, and he was named to the Class A all-state team at linebacker. As a captain for Havre in 2004, Mader is having another all-state season at his middle linebacker position as well as being very productive on offense despite limited carries. He anchors a Blue Pony defense that is the No. 1 ranked defense in the state, yielding just six points per contest.
"Colby is a very tough kid and what he has done this season is amazing," said HHS defensive coordinator Jason Christenson. "He goes out there and gives 100 percent every play and he doesn't let anyone see how much his knee is bothering him.
"The courage and heart that he plays with is what makes him such a great leader," Christenson added. "His teammates see what he does every day and they respond to that. They just seem to want to follow him on and off the field. I am very proud of him."
The toughness and resiliency that Mader has shown this season isn't the first time Christenson has witnessed it firsthand. As a coach at the Havre Middle School during Mader's seventh-grade year, Christenson remembers Mader breaking his thumb during a game. He came to the sidelines and told his coaches to tape it or do whatever they had to, because there was no way he coming out of the game.
"Colby is just one of those kids that has a lot of mental toughness," Christenson said. "He is a very physical football player and a very good linebacker with a lot of skills. He sees the field really well, and he is very instinctive on defense and that is very rare for a high school player."
The skill that Mader has shown off this season just might get him a spot on a college football roster somewhere next season. While Mader knows he still has much healing to do, playing football at the next level is something he thinks about.
"I would love to play football in college and I have always wanted to," he said. "My leg is still weak and I have a lot of work to do on it, but it is something that I definitely want to do next year."
But that's next year. Mader has some unfinished business left this year. All of that toughness and determination has gotten Mader to the biggest moment of any high school football player's career. He and his Blue Pony teammates are on the verge of completing a perfect season and achieving their ultimate goal, which is to win a state championship before they graduate.
It is something that Mader and his senior friends have been working for since that thumb-breaking year in the seventh grade. It is also something that has weighed heavy on Mader's mind since his sophomore year when he was a starter on the 2001 Havre High team that lost a heartbreaker to Laurel in the state championship game. On Saturday, Mader has a chance at redemption and so much more.
"Losing that game to Laurel really hurt at the time, but I didn't really realize how great of a team we had that year until this season," Mader said. "And now we have another great team and it has been an amazing season. We have played so well this year on both sides of the ball and it has been so much fun because we have all been playing together for so long.
"Losing to Laurel has definitely motivated me to win this game," Mader added. "We have had this goal for a long time and we have been working together for this since the seventh grade. It would be the perfect ending to a great season."
A perfect ending indeed. For Mader it would also be the achievement that not many people get to experience. Not only would he get to be a part of the rare few that have the privilege to win a state football championship, but at the end of the day, he would also get to prove people wrong who said he couldn't beat the odds. In most ways, he already has.
"When I hurt my knee, I just had to make it back to play football," he said. "Really the only goal I had in my mind was to get my starting spot back. I have worked very hard every day to get back and I am glad that I was able to get through it so that I could a part of this team and this season."
Mader only has to move his knee a little or look at the scars from the surgery to remember that awful nightmare - the instant where his dream senior season was put in jeopardy, the pain of surgery, the agony of being doubted and the torture of rehab. But it hurts just a little less, knowing that he overcame obstacles, proved people wrong and will play in the biggest football game of his life.
Colby Mader beat the odds to play football this season. Hopefully on Saturday, against Billings Central, he can do it one more time.