George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
When the No. 15 Montana State University- Northern Lights take the field on Saturday to face the No. 1 Carroll College Fighting Saints, fans in the stands might get the impression that something's missing from what will likely be another epic showdown between the two Frontier Conference programs. But in actuality, it's more of a some one than a some thing, and no one feels that way more than the some one himself. Carroll starting quarterback and former Havre High School three-sport star Gary Wagner won't be able to make his first-career start as a Saint at Blue Pony Stadium due to a broken leg that he suffered two weeks ago an injury that has sidelined Wagner for the remainder of the season. "It's one of the hardest things I've had to go through in my life," Wagner said from Helena on Wednesday night. "But I still feel like I'm so blessed in my life and there are a lot worse in life things than being injured. "So now I just have do my best to support my teammates. I haven't missed a practice or a team meeting and I'm helping the young quarterbacks as best I can. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't heartbroken right now." Wagner's injury came early in the second quarter of a game at UM-Western in Dillon on Sept. 6. Wagner, a junior at Carroll, was off to a hot start to his first season as a starter. He threw for 250-plus yards and a pair of touchdowns, and also ran for 70 yards and a score in his 2008 debut back on Aug. 30 at Azusa Pacific, and he had Carroll's offense looking nearly unstoppable. But then came the injury at Western. The aftermath of that injury was a fracture to his left fibula, as well as some cartilage damage. Wagner had surgery to repair the break on Monday, and for the rest of his life, will have a 12-inch metal plate and 12 screws in his leg. While time, rehabilitation and hard work will heal all of that, Wagner will still miss out on plenty this season, and to a quarterback who's rarely dealt with injury, the prospect of not playing, especially on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium, is frustrating. "This would have been my very first start at Blue Pony Stadium in college," Wagner said. "This was a game I had marked on my calendar. To come home and play in front of the fans I used to play in front of in high school and against Northern was something I was really looking forward to. "Blue Pony Stadium is a great place to play football," he added. "And I have a lot of great memories there. It's tough to deal with the fact that I won't be playing in this game." Wagner helped lead Havre High to its first Class A state football championship in over 30 years as a senior at HHS. But that wasn't the last time he played in Havre. Last season, Wagner was inserted into the Carroll/MSU-N game for several series with the game still very much in doubt, and he performed well. But Saturday's game was going to be much different for him, and now, with the injury, it will be even more unusual. "I kind of felt like this game would be my coming out party," he said. "It was going to give Havre fans, people who might or might not be cheering for me, a chance to see what I can do and see all the hard work I've put in. But now I'm going to have to play a different role. I have to be a coach out there and help our young quarterbacks try and win a football game against a really tough Northern team. So that's what I'll do." Indeed, the Saints will count on Wagner's help in shaping the true freshman quarterback who was thrust into the starting spot of the defending NAIA national championship team when it was least expected. Wagner had waited three seasons, one as a redshirt and two as a backup to former starter John Barnett for his chance to start for the Saints, and freshman Dane Broadhead probably figured that would be the case for him as well. Not any more however, and that's where having a savvy player like Wagner might just come in handy. "I'm going to be there for our quarterbacks in every way I can," he said. "But Dane and Matt (Ritter) will do just fine leading this offense on their own too. The team has a lot of confi- dence in them and so do I. We have a pretty deep football team and a great defense, so they know they aren't out there on their own. They have a lot of guys helping them, and I know they can get the job done." And Wagner has work to do as well. He's in a cast and on crutches for the next six to eight weeks, and then he'll begin an intense rehab program. He is intent on being back on the field for the Saints' 2009 spring drills and he will apply for a medical redshirt to try and gain his two years of remaining eligibility. Still, not playing this season will be tough and the toughest test might come on Saturday, when he's at home and on the turf at Blue Pony Stadium. "It's a tough situation. I've been pretty down, but it's part of the game of football and I just have to make the best of it," Wagner said. "I would love to be playing in this game in Havre, but now I just have to be a coach, support my team and start working towards getting healthy again. I am going to work really hard to get strong and get back to being able to play football, and watching this game from the sidelines will definitely be part of the motivation I'll use when things get tough." The Lights (2-0) take on Carroll (3-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium. The game is part of Northern's Homecoming festivities.