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High school football: When a high school athlete's reality trumps invincibility

December 11, 2012
South Bend Riley High School


Anderson (December 9, 2012)

SOUTH BEND -- Guarantees aren’t issued with helmets and shoulder pads.

Every high school football player is always one play away from the end of his career.

  • Al Lesar
  • Al Lesar

An unspoken code within the inner sanctum of the locker room won’t allow for invincibility to be questioned. Injury is never considered. Recognizing reality can be construed as allowing for weakness.

But, hey, stuff happens.

Four South Bend athletes headed into last summer with grand dreams. Why not? They were on top of the world. They had paid their dues. They all had done things the right way for the first three years of their high school careers.

This football season was going to be their time to shine.

But, remember, there are no guarantees.

Running back Mike Anderson (Riley), tight end Alex Coty (Clay), outside linebacker/tight end Matt Smallbone (SB St. Joseph) and strong safety/running back Ray Kowalski (SB St. Joseph) all had their senior seasons snatched from them by injuries.

Reality trumped invincibility. Lessons were learned.

Everything happens for a reason.

Mike Anderson, Riley

The 5-foot-8, 185-pound fireplug of a running back, who sports a 3.5 GPA, rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior.

“We set our offense based around (Anderson) and his skill set,” said Riley coach Brian Stultz. “Heck, he carried (the football) 205 times last year without getting hurt. This guy’s made of steel. We’ll never do that again. We’ll have different packages for everyone.”

In the third game of the season, Riley’s only victory at Hammond Gavit, the steel buckled.

“It was an option play,” Anderson recalled of the injury to his left knee. “The quarterback pulled the ball from the fullback and pitched it to me. I went up the sidelines. There was a guy in front of me and two guys behind. The guy in front went low. The two behind went high. As soon as I got hit, I heard something pop. I knew I was done.

“I never felt pain like that before. Everybody kept telling me I’d be fine. I knew I was done.”

Stultz said one of his assistants in the pressbox had to remove his headset because Anderson’s screams were audible and unbearable.

Torn ACL, MCL and meniscus — the trifecta.

“Losing my senior season was hard to accept,” Anderson said. “I cried for a week after I got hurt. It took me two weeks to get over it, but I finally came to accept it. Every day, I still think of what could have been. Your senior year is supposed to be your best. That was just a horrible feeling.”

Junior year had been good: Second-team All-Northern Indiana Conference, honorable mention All-State.

Senior year was supposed to be better.

“It’s really not fair,” Stultz said. “Here are (four) great kids, they’ve done everything right, they’ve put in the work in the classroom, in the weight room and on the practice field, then they had their senior year taken away from them.

“Senior year is supposed to be your time to shine.”

“I missed the Friday night lights the most; the adrenaline rush you get going into a game,” Anderson said. “I’ll never be able to do that again.”

He has had some recruiting interest from Eastern Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. St. Joseph’s College has continued its pursuit, despite the injury. Anderson’s academic success makes finding a school and walking on the football team a real possibility.

“The injury helped me appreciate the ability to play football,” Anderson said. “I appreciate the little things; being able to run the football.

“This whole experience has made me a better person. I’m more mature. I’m able to look for the positives in all this.”

“Through this, (Anderson) learned that in life and in football, there are things you have to overcome,” Stultz said. “He has been able to find the strength to do that.”

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