KNOXVILLE, Ia. — Keith VerMeer bends down over the football at practice, grips it with his left hand and snaps it through his legs several feet behind him to the quarterback.
It’s a motion the Knoxville football player has completed thousands of times since last October. But a year ago, he was snapping with his right hand.
That hand is now missing three fingers.
VerMeer’s life changed Oct. 15, 2016, when a large firecracker blew up in his hand as he tried to throw it.
VerMeer was right-handed. The accident left him with only his thumb and pinkie finger — and a gap in between.
So much of a life he took for granted had to be learned all over again. To write left-handed. To tie his shoelaces. To play football once more.
VerMeer had started playing in the third grade. It was part of the teenager’s identity. It was his connection to teammates, fellow students and the community. In the fall, his name would be written on a sign on his school locker, identifying him as a Knoxville Panther.
When his football coach visited him in the hospital last year, VerMeer was in bed. Cuts and scrapes from the blast were scattered across his chest and face. His right hand was completely covered in bandages.
From his hospital bed, he made what may have seemed an absurd pledge. He would not let a devastating injury keep him from the game he loved.
“Coach, I can snap with my left hand.” VerMeer told Eric Kellar.
It was the night after Knoxville’s home game against Bondurant-Farrar. VerMeer and his friends were lighting fireworks at his uncle’s home.
VerMeer, who turns 18 this month, had started the football season at offensive guard, but had switched to center during the third week.
Lighting off firecrackers was a normal activity for the kids.
“We all would have lit it,” Kellar said. “I know I would have lit it.”
VerMeer said he planned to light a firecracker and toss it, backhanded, before it let off a big bang. But it got stuck in his hand before it exploded.
“I guess I didn’t get rid of one,” Keith said.
A 911 call was made, and Keith was rushed to Knoxville Hospital & Clinics. He’d end up spending the night at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, where he underwent surgery.
The phone rang at the VerMeer home, too, but Keith’s dad, Tim, had stepped outside to let out the family dog, a Border collie named Snickers.
Moments later, Tim watched an ambulance drive past in the direction of the hospital.
“Could it be?” he wondered.
Tim checked his phone messages, and there was one from his brother-in-law: “You need to get to the hospital. It’s not good.”
As soon as Keith saw his father, he apologized.
“I messed up,” Keith told him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Tim could see that his son had lacerations on his face and chest and near his right eye.
Keith’s right hand was heavily damaged by the explosion and was so completely wrapped in gauze bandages that Tim couldn’t see the extent of the damage. Keith, who was stunned from the accident and medication, couldn’t tell, either.
He asked the emergency room staff what his hand was like.
“They told me basically what it was, but I couldn’t picture it,” Keith said.
He saw one of the Emergency Medical Service workers and asked about his son’s hand.
The man pointed at his own pinkie on his right hand. Tim asked if he meant that Keith had lost his pinkie.
“No, I think that’s all that’s left,” the man said.
As horrible as Keith’s accident was, it could have been worse.
The blast from the firecracker took off three fingers from his right hand. Doctors were able to save his thumb. Contusions on his right cheek had spared his right eye.
If he had clutched the firecracker higher, damage could have affected his hearing, sight or damaged his head.
“It nearly blew his face off,” Kellar said.
Adapting to life after the accident required learning how to perform skills left-handed. He underwent six months of physical therapy as part of his recovery.
Tying his shoelaces became a goal. It’s a frustrating act when a thumb and pinkie were the only digits on his right hand.
He taught himself to write with his left hand.
Didn’t that make his handwriting difficult for his teachers to read? It wasn’t great to begin with, Keith said.
“Before, it was bad, then it was really bad, then back to bad,” he said.
Keith VerMeer was always a determined young man, though, something that helped his recovery.
As a child, he had eagerly mowed lawns in his neighborhood, tying a mower to his bike to drag it along.
Even in his hospital bed, he was focused on moving forward.
“There was never any self-pity,” Tim said.
His efforts to rejoin the football team inspired others.
“He’s just fighting through everything,” said Jacob Zuck, Knoxville’s quarterback. “To think about all the life changes he’s had to make, it’s awesome how he fights through it without complaining.”
His family — dad Tim, mom Jodi and younger sister Charlie — were there to support him.
So was the football team.
By the day after the accident, his hospital room was full of players.
When Kellar visited, Keith told him that he would learn to snap the ball left-handed.
“It wasn’t a question that he was going to play again,” Tim said.
He worked so hard at snapping it that he became better at his job than he was previously. His heavily trained left hand topped his right hand when it was undamaged.
“He’s probably our best snapper,” coach Kellar said.
“It felt the same,” Zuck said. “He adapted pretty well.”
One year after the accident, Keith is back in the starting spot.
He’s using his left hand. Determination carried him. When he said he’d return to the football team, he meant it.
“I never told them I wasn’t going to not do it,” VerMeer said.
There was never a doubt.