Colton Ward has never shied from setting lofty goals for himself no matter the obstacles in his way.
And few can claim to have overcome more than the Rider (Wichita Falls, Texas) junior.
A little more than two years ago, Ward was enjoying his second padded practice as a Rider Raider when the unthinkable happened. A freak accident left Ward writhing in pain on the field with his knee completely dislocated.
The injury was more severe than originally thought and eventually led to Ward having part of his leg amputated. But not even that was going to keep him from playing football again.
On Friday, Ward’s journey to recovery reaches a pivotal point when he will suit up and potentially play in his first varsity game as the Raiders host Kennedale at 7 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s a good deal and I’m happy I get to do it,” Ward said, “but it’s not the end for me. To me it’s not miraculous, I have high expectations for myself.”
Ward’s life was forever changed Aug. 10, 2015. He was in the midst of his first experience with two-a-day practices, enjoying a morning session.
While he considered outside linebacker his true position, Ward was a receiver on offense and was working on catching screen passes. He couldn’t haul in one pass and turned to retrieve the ball when a teammate dove for the loose ball and took out Ward in the process.
He landed awkwardly on his right side and felt his knee dislocate. Rider coach Marc Bindel witnessed the play firsthand.
“I remember it like it clear as day,” Bindel said. “He was moaning “Ow, ow, ow, ow” over and over again. I saw his leg and thought it was broken. The trainer didn’t get a pulse in the leg and told us to call 911.”
Bindel rode with Ward in the ambulance to United Regional, calling Ward’s mother on the way to give her the news.
“I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t answer,” Stephanie Ward said. “He sent me a text after that telling me Colton’s leg was broken. I called him back and went to meet him at the ER. Then we found out it was much worse than that.”
Ward’s leg wasn’t broken. His knee had been separated, tearing the ligaments, but also severing the popliteal artery in the process. Ward needed to see a vascular surgeon, but some time was wasted as the hospital searched for a pediatric vascular surgeon — a type of specialty that doesn’t exist.
Eventually, a vascular surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas was found and Ward was airlifted to have the operation. Throughout this process, he remained fairly calm.
“I was completely cognizant for the entire 30-minute journey to Dallas,” Ward said. “There were four random guys with me. I tried talking to them and none of them really would talk to me. I thought, ‘Y’all are really boring.’ I laid there awkwardly looking out the window, trying to see what I could see. I just remember seeing all the bad traffic, like it was rough that way.”
Trying to find their way through that traffic was Stephanie Ward and her husband, John. Due to the urgency of the procedure, the hospital phoned Stephanie to obtain permission to operate on her son, rather than waiting for her to weave through traffic and sign her consent.
“It was frustrating,” Stephanie said through tears. “When you knew how bad it was, we were trying to find a vascular surgeon and there were all those hours wasted just trying to find one. He’s very lucky he only lost as much as he did.
“The traffic was ridiculous. I was just sitting in traffic and wondering if he was OK. Then we got to the hospital and had to wait several hours before seeing anyone who could actually tell us anything.”
Ward was injured between 8 and 9 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2015. He didn’t undergo surgery until 2 p.m. that same day.
Ward was unconscious for the next 27 hours, undergoing procedures to repair the damage to the popliteal artery. The took veins from his left leg to fix it, giving him a permanent scar. He also had an external fixator, composed on bars of titanium, bolted into his leg to stabilize the injury.
“I woke up and had six or seven doctors with me in the ICU,” Ward said. “They were trying to explain to me what had happened. They told me I might have nerve damage in my foot. As soon as they told me that, I started screaming from the nerve pain.”
That nerve pain will never go away. It’s something Ward will live with the remainder of his life.
He spent the next few weeks in the hospital, rehabbing his injury enough to where he could walk. Bindel visited him Aug. 16 and several of his teammates rode a bus to Dallas with their coaches to see him a week later.
It was during the visit with his teammates that Ward came to a strong conclusion.
“After that day, I knew I was going to play football again,” Ward said. “The drive I got from that because so many of them were wanting me to get better and hoping I could play again, that made me want to get better and play again. I was determined to play again from that moment.”
He had a long road ahead of him. Several more procedures were needed, including nine more in-patient surgeries.
Ward was discharged from the hospital Sept. 1, 2015, but doctor visits were frequent. He began working on bending his leg, but had to have around a pound of scar tissue surgically removed from his knee and a bone chip taking out of his kneecap before he could bend it beyond a 90-degree angle.
Throughout all of this, the nerve pain persisted. He missed 110 days of school his freshman year due to the severe pain, placing him in WFISD’s home-bound program. He admittedly became a recluse during this time.
“I was sad because I was by myself most of the time,” Ward said. “My parents had to work. I didn’t talk to people because no one could understand what I was going through. I didn’t want to force my problems on other people, so when someone asked how I was feeling I said, ‘I’m fine.'”
Stephanie Ward noticed the change in her son.
“He’s always been outgoing, but after the injury there were months he was screaming in pain and didn’t want people to see him go through that,” she said. “It was such a hard thing to go through.”
The pain kept Ward from progressing toward his goal of playing football again. He began seeing Dr. Philip Wilson, based out of Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Plano. They began discussing his options and for the first time amputation was strongly considered.
“At first, I was really against the idea,” Ward said. “That’s my leg. I worked really hard to keep it and I didn’t want to get rid of it. Then they told me if it keeps going like this, we might have to amputate half your foot and we might have to keep going higher because you’re so close to infection.”
Ward weighed his options and came to a conclusion in December 2016.
“I thought of what good I could actually get out of it and said, ‘Let’s do it,'” Ward said. “This is going to allow me to progress and move on plus I shouldn’t be in as much pain. It got to the point where I was done with foot pain. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Before the doctors would amputate his lower leg, they had Ward get reconstructive surgery on his ACL and LCL in his right knee. He then had to rehab his knee.
“That wasn’t too hard,” Ward said of knee rehab. “After what I had already been through and the physical therapy I was going through just to move my knee to a 90 degree and 120-degree angle, it wasn’t hard at all.”
Ward had the bottom half of lower leg amputated May 10. It was strangely a relief.
“It’s weird to say, but with the amount of pain he had and still has, the amputation part of it was probably the easiest part,” Stephanie said. “The pain is a lot better, but there’s no such thing as a pain-free life for him.”
Ward got his first prosthetic in late July. Since then, he’s been full tilt toward his goal of returning to the football field. He’s not allowing anything to slow him down.
“It’s not common for someone to progress as fast as he has since amputation,” Stephanie said. “His doctors are amazed at his progress. He’s just so determined.”
On Monday, Ward was cleared to participate in football on a limited basis. He’s allowed to be included on low-impact situations, including some special teams situations. It’s not everything he wants, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“I’m just really happy for him,” Bindel said. “It’s clear he’s been through a lot. If anyone deserves to be on the field, it’s him. For him to even get the opportunity to be on the field for one play is great. It’s going to mean a lot to his coaches and his teammates. We’ve seen him work for this.”
Ward’s coaches and teammates might actually be more excited about this opportunity than he is.
“To me it’s not that big of a deal,” Ward said. “I want my first plays to be back at my actual position (outside linebacker). I want to go back to playing my position. That’s what I know. I’m not going to be sad if my first plays are on special teams. I never really liked special teams, but I’ll do it if that’s what I get to do and I’m happy I get to do it. I’m just not done yet.”
Ward’s parents are naturally apprehensive about their son playing football again, but they’ve never considered discouraging him from doing so.
“You can look at it in two ways. It would be so easy if he would say I’m done with football, but that’s just not who he is,” Stephanie said. “Going through everything he went through, the only reason he did that was for football. How can we take that way from him?
“No matter how hard it is for me as a parent, it’s going to be harder for him. Everything is going to be harder for him than it has been for us. I feel like so much has been taken from him. I shouldn’t be the one to take the rest of it away. We’re going to be there to support him and be there for him.”
Ward’s ultimate goal is to follow in the footsteps of Koni Dole and Kody Kasey, two athletes who played college football despite having part of their legs amputated. Dole earned a spot on the Montana State roster in 2015 after he suffered a similar injury to Ward’s in high school. Kasey was a kick returner at Georgetown College, an NAIA school located in Kentucky.
Ward knows he’s still got a long way to go before he can achieve these dreams. He’s still regaining strength in his right hamstring and quadriceps. He currently runs a six second 40-yard dash in his current prosthetic, which he received a week ago. He was down to a 5.8 in his first prosthetic before his stump shrunk too much and it didn’t fit properly.
He’s hoping to get a a blade, which many amputee athletes use when running.
Ward hasn’t competed in a live sporting event since he was an eighth-grader running track and playing football at McNiel Junior High. That could change Friday should the right situation arise.
But don’t think his journey stops there. Ward won’t be satisfied until he’s reached his lofty expectations.
“I’m not physically capable of playing defense right now, I’ll admit it, but I’m not done until I’m playing defense,” Ward said. “I’m not finished until I can take one of those other guys’ spot and do just as well as them. Even then, I still want to go further than that.
“I’m going to try to play in college and I’d love to be the first amputee in the NFL. Like I said, high expectations.”