Learning from his loss

Crushing injury ended Tekotte’s football dreams
Wednesday, October 27, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:04 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Inside Blake Tekotte’s Columbia living room, the Hickman High School senior is sprawled out in a blue leather chair on a Sunday afternoon. He is draped in a Hickman baseball T-shirt and purple Hickman shorts. The New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys play on a TV in the corner, but the volume is turned down, making the game barely audible.

His right leg, a mess of ace bandages and metal rods, is propped up onto a footrest.

Tekotte has been called here today to tell his story. It is a story of loss and a story of learning. It will be the first time he’s recounted, in any sort of detail, what he’s been through the past two months.

A year ago, he was one of the most promising high school quarterbacks in the state. He led Hickman to a district title in his junior season, passing for 1,573 yards and rushing for nearly 600 more. He shattered the school’s single-season passing record once held by former MU standout Corby Jones.

But all of that was long ago, and as he sits here now, he takes a deep breath and runs his hand through his light brown hair.

And then he begins.

The Hickman football team was only minutes into the first game of its 2004 season, and already it was on a roll as Tekotte made his way to the team huddle. With the exception of an early fumble, the Kewpies looked every bit like the team that was projected to be among the state’s elite when the playoffs rolled around in November.

Tekotte was equally impressive. He had thrown two passes, each complete, for a total of 15 yards, and showed no signs of rust despite missing the majority of the team’s summer workouts while traveling with his competitive baseball team.

He took the snap, faked a handoff to senior running back Brandon Kendrick, then cut inside to avoid a tackle. That’s when he heard the sickening pop. That’s when he slammed to the turf, unsteadied by the sudden pain in his right knee.

The next few minutes are hazy, but he remembers players and coaches gathering around him as he lay on the soft grass of Hickman’sfield. Eventually the pain was replaced with an eerie numbness, and Tekotte was able to limp off the field.

Later that night he iced his knee, hopeful that the injury wasn’t as severe as he initially suspected.

The next day Tekotte and his parents traveled to Columbia Regional Hospital, where an MRI was taken to assess the damage.

The news the family soon received reduced his mom, Cheryl, to tears, and tore at the young man’s heart: Multiple tears in the meniscus of his right anterior cruciateligament, a required two-hour surgery and the end of Tekotte’s high school football career.

Never one to display emotion, Tekotte slowly sunk back into his chair as a whirlwind of thoughts tore through his head.

But Tekotte was a fighter, and, if for no other reason than because he had no choice, he would accept the injury. So in the days after the injury, Tekotte managed to appear surprisingly upbeat. He attended the team’s practices and gamesand even showed up for Saturday morning film sessions. He was optimistic, cheerful even, encouraging teammates and urging them not to let his absence affect them.

“Blake was really good about staying positive,” Hickman (position) Mike Roper said. “He let us know that, ‘Just because I’m out, it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong.’”

Before Hickman’s game against Rockhurst on Sept. 10, the first since his injury, Tekotte smiled as he stood in the corner of the team’s locker room and listened to Hickman coach Gregg Nesbitt give a pre-game speech to the team’s seniors, urging them to go out and win one for their fallen leader.

The smile was still there as player after player filed by to offer words of sympathy and inform Tekotte that they would indeed take care of business in his absence.

The smile, though, was only a cover. It was all Tekotte could do to hide the truth, which was that things were not OK. The truth was that, on the inside, it was killing him.

“It was just a sick feeling,” he said of the night of the Rockhurst game. “Kind of a closure to my career. It’s something I didn’t want to give up. But I knew I had to.”

The next few weeks would prove equally as difficult. He continued to attend the games and team dinners that were held on Thursday nights, but things were different. He no longer felt like an integral part of the team. He felt like an outsider, a stranger. Because of the injury, he no longer attended practices, instead retreating to the trainer’s room after school. He was unable to ride the team bus to away games.

To make things worse, Hickman was thriving behind junior Andrew Perkins. With each snap he took, the newly appointed quarterback looked more and more comfortable running the Kewpies’ offense. In his first varsity action of the year, Perkins threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns, and on Sept. 24, he led Hickman to a 34-17 upset against then-nationally ranked Blue Springs, propelling the Kewpies to the No. 1 spot in Missouri’s Class 6 football poll and, essentially, making Tekotte a distant memory.

“It was like everybody had just kind of moved on,” Tekotte said. “And that’s what I’d expect them to do. But it’s still hard to take. You know, I’m not the Hickman quarterback anymore. I’m the injured quarterback.”

Meanwhile, when college baseball recruiters called, Tekotte had to admit that he tore his ACL playing football and would be sidelined for the next six months. A standout in the sport (he was an all-state centerfielder as a junior, batting .519 with 7 home runs and 21 RBIs), he was being heavily recruited by various Division-I schools.

But now, who knew? Would colleges take a chance on a kid who was coming back from a major knee injury?

“He was devastated,” said Cheryl. “He’d had a lot of success in baseball, and had a lot of opportunities in front of him. And I think his reaction was just ‘Oh man, how is this going to affect my baseball?’”

Five days after the Blue Springs game, Tekotte underwent surgery to repair his knee. He would waken that night with what he calls “the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.

“It was like a knife,” he said, “was slowly digging into my knee.”

Surgery also brought on a new struggle. The sting of watching his senior season go by without him was still there, but now there was the added reality of adjusting to a limited lifestyle. He could no longer walk without the use of crutches, and driving was out of the question. Most of the time, he was relegated to his bed or a couch in the family’s living room.

Then, on a quiet Monday night in October, Tekotte hit rock bottom.

Sitting in his bedroom, he found himself bogged down with overdue homework and a sickness in the pit of his stomach that stemmed from the realization that his past four years of work had been for nothing. Everything, it seemed, had worked out so terribly wrong.

He had it all only two months before. He was the starting quarterback on a team destined for great things.

But everything had changed. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without the help of his parents. He had become dependent. The world, he was convinced, had turned against him.

Around midnight, it became too much to take. He called his girlfriend, Hattie Wellington, and the two talked at length about what the quarterback was going through. Later, tears were shed as he and his mom had an emotional, one hour-talk, as Tekotte spilled his guts.

“Why is this happening to me?” he asked his mom. “I should be on the field, and we should be on the road to winning a state championship.”

Says Wellington: “I think it finally sunk in. It was just overwhelming to think about how much progress he had to make before he’s even able to walk up the stairs.”

Everything happens for a reason.

At least, that’s what everyone told Tekotte in the days after the injury. He wasn’t sure he believed it at first. What, he wondered, could be the reason for this? Why me? Why now?

But he couldn’t continue like this, dwelling on the past and feeling sorry for himself. Was he going to spend the next four months of rehabilitation depressed and bitter, or would he spend it working toward getting himself in the best shape possible for the start of baseball season in the spring?

And that is why, shortly after that traumatic night, his outlook began to change. He began to realize that maybe this wasn’t such a horrible situation after all. Maybe, he figured, this had happened for a reason.

“I realized that this is an obstacle that I’m going to have to overcome,” Tekotte said. “It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to try to enjoy the challenge, of starting over, and just learning how to do things all over again.”

Family and friends began to notice a change in Tekotte as well. Cheryl called the night in his room a turning point and has been impressed with the positive attitude her son has since displayed.

“From that day on,” Cheryl said, “he picked himself up. He’s been focusing on what’s ahead. Because you can’t go backwards. And that’s what we haven’t let him do is go backwards. You know, you’re here, and now you’ve got to move on to the next step, and then the next step after that.”

Tekotte admits there were things he took for granted before the injury. Practice, for instance, is something he says he could’ve worked harder in. But as time has passed and he’s experienced what it’s like to sit out day after day, that, he says, will change.

Now he looks forward to being able to get up and go out for a run, something he says he never would have considered before. He talks with excitement at the progress he’s making in rehab and his ambitions for the start of baseball season. In the past two weeks, he has abandoned the crutches, and been able to put pressure on his leg for the first time since surgery.

“Rehab is the thing I’m focusing my energy into,” he says. “I’m actually enjoying it because it feels like I’m doing something for a reason, to get my knee back to where it needs to be.”

The same recruiters he once feared would abandon him are still calling.

Still, there are times when it is not easy. Before games, it’s difficult watching his teammates psych themselves up without him. And there are occasions, too, when Tekotte will find himself in a troubled mood.

“Sometimes he’ll relive the moment,” says Wellington. “You know, ‘The guy was running at me, if I would’ve done this…’ But at the same time, he knows he can’t change it. So he says stuff like “When I can walk, we’re going to go to a concert’ or ‘We’re going to do this.’ He’s really been optimistic in thinking about it.”

But, he says, the worst is finished. He is confident there will be no emotional spills like the one in his room. He looks forward to the high school football playoffs, which begin in two weeks, and being with his team as they try to win their first state championship since 1974.

“I think his peace has come now that he’s accepted the injury,” Cheryl said. “And the team is moving on. It’s bittersweet for him. He’s sad that he can’t be a part of it, but the team is doing so well, and he truly is happy for them.”

Back in his living room, Tekotte is finishing his story. The football game draws to a close, and the afternoon sun is beginning to set, spilling shadows through the room.

Tekotte sits in his seat, constantly adjusting his body. He still hasn’t gotten used to being off his feet.

In two days, the Hickman football team will line MU’s Faurot Field as it prepares to take on rival Rock Bridge in its final tune-up before its game against Jefferson City on Nov. 5.

Tekotte would’ve liked to play at Faurot Field. He would’ve liked to taken snaps on the same field that Corby Jones once did, and where Brad Smith now does.

He will make his way down to the sideline in the minutes before the game begins, and there will be a moment, certainly, when Tekotte’s spirit drops. He will imagine what could have been, and wonder how well the team would be doing had things not turned out the way they had.

But it won’t last long. Because it can’t last long. What is done is done. And nothing can change that. So Tekotte will cheer. He will smack helmets, and get after teammates. He will yell, and point out deficiencies he notices in the Rock Bridge defense.

Because, in the end, it is all he can do.

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