The high school football game in Wichita Falls, Texas, was already won when, with five minutes remaining, the assistant football coach pointed at 16-year-old outside linebacker Colton Ward on the Rider High sideline.
“Alright, Colton. Next series, you’re going in.”
Ward’s first thought was simple. “OK, that’s exciting.” The next was more complicated. “It hits you that the last time I was in for a real play was eighth grade. That was three years ago. This is Texas 5A football. This isn’t a joke.”
Ward told the assistant coach, Ross Dillard, he didn’t want to go in. Dillard didn’t like that answer, so he immediately sent Ward to the head coach, Marc Bindel.
Ward found Bindel, who listened to his player’s concerns for a couple of seconds before definitively ending the conversation.
“You’ve worked too hard,” Bindel told his player. “Get your butt in there.”
Ward’s trepidation was understandable. He has endured 17 surgeries over little more than two years. The last one, in May, was to amputate the lower part of his right leg.
When Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller suffered his gruesome knee injury Sunday, tearing the popliteal artery in his left leg and requiring emergency surgery to save the leg, Ward wasn’t watching, but when he heard about it, he knew exactly what was happening to Miller.
So did Bindel. “It looked like what happened to Colton.”
In August 2015, Ward was a 14-year-old freshman in his first two-a-day practice when, playing wide receiver, he missed a screen pass and reached to pick up the ball. At the same moment, a teammate dove for the ball and slammed into Ward, who landed awkwardly, felt his knee dislocate and knew immediately that something was very wrong.
Bindel and the team’s trainer ran to him. “The trainer checked his lower leg for a pulse,” Bindel said. “There wasn’t one. It was the first time I’ve ever had a trainer say, ‘Call 911.’”
Ward’s knee had been separated, ligaments had been torn and the popliteal artery had been severed. He was flown from a local Wichita Falls hospital to Dallas’ infamous Parkland Memorial Hospital (where President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead on Nov. 22, 1963) and underwent emergency surgery to repair his artery and save the leg.
In the weeks and months that followed, Ward fought valiantly to regain use of his right leg and foot despite searing and often debilitating nerve pain.
“I kept thinking my foot would get better, that the nerve damage and pain would get better,” Ward said in a phone conversation Tuesday night. “I pushed through the pain. I made a little bit of progress. But it didn’t get better.”
He missed more than 100 days of school his freshman year. In addition to the constant pain, there was the constant threat of infection. By his sophomore year, he realized this was not the way he wanted to live.
“Everything I’ve missed out on, the friends who didn’t invite me to anything, the relationships I wasn’t able to build with people,” he said. “ ‘Colton’s busy. Colton can’t be around. He’s got to do something with his leg.’ There was no moving forward. There was no doing anything.”
His family also saw no other option. “The closest thing he could have to a normal life was by choosing to amputate,” his mother Stephanie said. “It should be a more fulfilling life. Otherwise, he was home bound, couldn’t walk, couldn’t go to school because he was in so much pain.”
So, last December, Ward, then 15, made the excruciating decision to amputate his lower right leg.
“There have been times he gets so overwhelmed he breaks down,” Bindel said. “But he’s very brave. He made the decision to cut off his leg.”
But first there was another operation. In February, Ward underwent reconstructive surgery on two ligaments in his right knee so that his leg would be as strong as it could be when it was time for him to start walking – and running – with his prosthetic leg.
In July, just two months after the amputation, Ward put on his artificial leg for the first time. In September, he was cleared to participate in football on a limited basis, meaning extra points and field goals. Public-address announcers don’t normally name the blockers who run onto the field for extra points, but Bindel made sure Ward’s name was announced that day. It’s possible no high school extra-point attempt has ever been met with such an enthusiastic crowd reaction.
Then, last week, Ward was cleared to play a position on the field. When his teammates noticed he was running into the game for his first real play, they began chanting his name. By the time the game was over, he had been in on two tackles.
“Over the last two years,” Bindel said, “the one thing that kept Colton going was that he was going to get this opportunity to play. Of anybody in the world, he deserves the reward of getting a chance to play. His leg strength is there. His speed isn’t yet. He got knocked down three or four times, but that was good. He needed to be out there.”
Watching, Stephanie Ward understandably was a bundle of nerves. “I’m sure as time goes by it will settle down for me. But this is his passion, his dream. How do you say no to that?”
When football season ends, Ward will try a new prosthetic leg with a blade on the end so he can run track this spring and get used to the blade for his senior football season next year. He hasn’t given up on his dream of playing college football, but he knows there’s even more waiting for him.
“Why me? You say that a lot,” he said. “But I’m happy it was me because I wouldn’t have wanted to see any of my teammates go through this.
“I know I can inspire people. Maybe I can start an amputee football league someday. Or, another option is becoming a doctor. I do have plenty of leg experience.”
Contributing: Jonathan Hull