SIOUX FALLS -- As Riley Waldie
rose off the ground for a pass during a 2017 spring practice, he reached back for the football thrown just a little behind him, pulled it in and braced for a hit. As contact arrived and he landed on the turf at Bob Young Field, he knew immediately something was wrong.
"I was going forward so fast that when I landed my knee caved in," said Waldie, a senior tight end on the nationally-ranked University of Sioux Falls Football Team. "I felt the (knee) pop, and I knew it was more than an ACL tear because of how loud it sounded. I was trying to fight pain and realizing that it wasn't right. But there was nothing I could do about it."
As Waldie remained on the turf on Bob Young Field, the athletic training staff, namely USF assistant athletic trainer Sam Lang, rushed to his side. Experience had taught Lang that Waldie's injury appeared to be significant.
"I just knew right away that we were dealing with a major injury," said Lang, a certified athletic trainer with Avera and at USF since 2012.
For the first time in his life, Waldie left a football field not of his own accord.
Injuries are a reality of competitive sports. More than 600,000 student-athletes suffer disruptive injuries or ones that require some form of rehabilitation and missed time every year.
As Waldie found out, sustaining an injury, particularly one that puts one's career in athletics on the line, tests one's core, both from a physical and personal standpoint.
Athletes are accustomed to getting up and shaking off any problems. But like a singer losing their voice or a sculptor losing use of their hands, the future for an injured athlete, especially one suffering injuries of a catastrophic nature, is unsteady and confronted by a range of challenges.
It is why training staffs have to have an understanding of the emotional and physical toll that student-athletes go through during injury. The trauma of injury is real.
"I have been really impressed with how he (Waldie) responded to such a major injury," said Lang, who with Waldie recently received an Iron Will Award from the South Dakota Athletic Trainers Association (SDATA). The annual award is presented to male and female athlete, who have come back from major injury, and their trainer. "He remained so positive. I was blown away by positivity that he emanated the whole time. I was impressed by his attitude, never backing down or complaining."
Working day-to-day with student-athletes, Lang and other athletic trainers have to be advisor, cheerleader and even friend. In that way, she felt blessed by Waldie's response, knowing that she didn't know if it was possible for him to ever step on a field again whether practice or on game day. The fortitude and positive attitude of Waldie was something Lang doesn't always see.
"It is why I nominated him for Iron Will Award. He remained a leader. He is still a leader to respond to the way he did," said Lang.
For USF head coach Jon Anderson
, Waldie has been a picture of resilience. "I am incredibly proud of Riley's determination to overcome his injury," said Anderson. 'His persistence and work ethic in doing so have been an inspiration to me and our entire team. "
While Lang built a plan for recovery, Waldie had no doubts of coming back. From day one he knew that he was going to give every fiber of his being to return to the field and brothers on the USF Team.
He wasn't doing it alone but self-determination would be the ultimate factor in recovery. With support of his family both at home and on campus, Waldie began the process that was slow and, in some ways, harrowing.
"It is frustrating to go through a serious injury," said Waldie, whose best game at USF was in the 2015 playoff game at Henderson State with career-highs of seven catches for 55 yards in the 23-16 setback. "You find out that you can't get back up and do what you had always done. But I had to battle and understand it would take time."
Rams, football and coming to USF
Finding his passion for football, really didn't happen for Waldie until he was in middle school and after becoming a fan of the explosive St. Louis Rams in the NFL.
"It was then I started thinking about and playing the game," he said.
Waldie was starting by his sophomore year in Fort Collins, Colo., before transferring to Jenks, Okla., as a senior in 2013. It was there, he experienced championship football as Jenks High rolled to a 14-0 record and defeated cross town rival Union, 38-22, in the Oklahoma 6A title game. The 2013 title was the 14th
of the program's 16 state overall titles. In the game, Waldie caught a two-yard TD pass in the third quarter for a 38-14 lead as Jenks extended its winning streak to 26 straight games.
A team captain and all-district player, Waldie was noticed by college programs, including USF, Augustana, William Penn and Oklahoma State, which offered him a preferred walk-on opportunity. But he initially decided to attend Tulsa Tech and become a diesel mechanic.
Midway through the summer, he started to feel the itch for football and wondered if he was making the right decision to go to tech school. After talking it over with his family, he called then former USF head coach Jed Stugart
to see if a scholarship was still on the table. It was - Waldie was Sioux Falls-bound.
Following a redshirt season in 2014, Waldie saw action during the Cougars' 9-3 playoff team in 2015, including a crucial role in the playoff game with Henderson State after starter Brady Rose was injured early.
In 2016, he played in four games on a team that was run-based, finishing third in NCAA DII in rushing, while rolling to an 11-0 league mark, 12-1 overall, and the school's first-ever NSIC league title before advancing to the "Sweet 16" in the NCAA DII playoffs.
Waldie begins comeback
The date, April 21, 2017 carries a special significance for Waldie. It was the day, he was hurt during one of the final practice sessions of that spring practice. Waldie, who was vying to win a starting job with a new coaching staff in place, faced huge odds of ever returning to the game he loved after an injury nearly wrecked his knee.
"Honestly, the thought of the injury and what it might mean considering how much time I had put into football since 13, made me initially a little frustrated. But, I felt like I had a lot left that I wanted to do in football," said Waldie. "I knew that I wanted to play again."
After visiting with Lang and doctors, Waldie began the road back.
According to Lang, the initial recovery time appeared to be 12-months due to the tearing of three ligaments in his knee and nerve damage. After the first surgery, it was determined that there was more extensive damage to the knee, which not only extended the recovery time but required a second surgery.
"What was especially important to see is that Riley never let any anger get to him," said Lang. "He simply accepted the verdict and began working on his recovery."
Recovery and Learning
In a certain respect, the injury proved to be a learning experience for Waldie, who is an exercise science major at USF.
He learned first-hand about what it takes to rehab and what it would take to move forward. It was like he was his own case-study in exercise science.
"It was interesting and eye-opening," said Waldie. "In visiting retirement and nursing homes and what some with Parkinson's Disease were dealing with, working with little kids on workouts at practicums, I saw that my injury was relatable to what some of those people were dealing with," added Waldie, who was inspired by former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. The Notre Dame All-American was projected an early first round selection in the NFL draft prior to being hurt in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl game against Ohio State. Smith, who suffered a similar injury as Waldie, was drafted in the second round (34th
player off the board) and fought back to earn a place as a key player for the Dallas Cowboys.
"Obviously he was seen as a high draft pick and then went later to the Cowboys after the devastating injury," said Waldie. "He played every game for the Cowboys so I figured if he can do it, why can't I?"
"When you lose something – it can be pretty easy to slip into bad spot mentally but you have to try to stay as positive as possible. Bad days will come but don't have more than one in a row as Coach (Jon) Anderson reminded me."
After the injury, he finished his semester at home in Colorado. His parents, Shawn and Elizabeth, played a critical role in his rehab, according to Waldie, who also received support from friends he grew up with along with teammates and former USF teammates.
His mother, Elizabeth, drove him two days a week to the physical therapy center in Boulder, Colo.
"She was there every step of the way," added Waldie, noting the support and comfort that his siblings provided including brothers Lane and Grayson and sister – Erin.
Waldie also leaned heavily on Lang, who helped him set up physical therapy, helping with insurance considerations and more. "She has been there for me," said Waldie. "She took me to urgent care to get x-rays and through rehab programs. Now through all the hard work, she has been helping me after I have been cleared," added Waldie.
He also mentioned other USF athletic trainers, as well as the coaching staff, who have provided a great deal of support. "If I needed anything, Coach Anderson, Coach (Jim) Chapin and Coach (Nick) Benedetto have continually checked with me. I have never forgotten about that," he said.
And, teammate Adria Botella
, who graduated in May, 2018, has been a great friend and a person that Waldie leaned on for support. However, Botella would unfortunately suffer his own injury late in the season for the playoff-bound USF 2017 squad. Botella, who had made the switch from offense to defense, missed the final three games of the season, including the playoff game at No. 5 Midwestern State (24-20 loss). Botella then leaned on Waldie, who could identify with the emotions and rehab challenges that a major injury can create.
"We had become such great friends and looked forward to playing together. Then I was injured. It went full circle when he was hurt late in the season," said Waldie. "I tried to support him and walked him through how things work, at least from what I experienced. Our friendship has become one of a lifetime," he said.
As the fall quickly approaches, Waldie faces the reality of everything coming full circle. While he has family and friends, teammates and coaches, behind him, the days ahead may proving daunting. Yet, he knows he will have an opportunity to again play the game he so loves.
After more than 18 months away from the field, Waldie is aware that stepping on the field again is likely going to stir emotions inside.
"I am assuming it will be incredible," said Waldie, noting some of his doctors have told him to be careful. "Up to this point my surgeon and therapist Jay Eidsness at Avera said everything is going great. It was really the key to moving forward this spring," he said. "If I get hurt again then I will know. But I made up my mind this is what I had to do. This is what I wanted to do and it will all be worth it no matter what happens," he said.
"I am ready."