by The Forest Edge staff
Senior captain Collin Schlosser struggled with his emotions as he reflected on the last seven years of playing football with senior captain Spencer Nehls, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in a 59-58 win over Zeeland West last Friday night.
The basement at the Nehls’ house was crowded with several teammates engaged in an XBox football game. But, all of Schlosser’s attention was focused on Nehls.
“How special it has been, what an honor it has been [to play with Nehls],” Schlosser said, fighting back tears. “This is our 7th season together. Every step of the way he has been on my team with me. He is the one kid I could always count on on the field.”
Nehls lay on the couch just a few feet away – his ankle wrapped and elevated following surgery on Wednesday — surrounded by teammates and his girlfriend, Mackenzie.
Nehls season ended abruptly on the first offensive series of the second half. A simple play — ”Zone Left,” according to Nehls — cut short a most promising senior season.
“I got the ball, took it to the left side and then ended up cutting it back to the right,” Nehls described in a monotone, tired voice. “Their middle linebacker, number 56, grabbed my ankles as he was bringing me down. I felt it pop and started screaming…it was pretty painful.
“It hurt more than a sprain and I didn’t exactly know what it was because as the trainer came out it started to hurt less and less — and I thought ‘Maybe I’m all right,’” Nehls said. “We got to the sideline and I couldn’t put any pressure on it.”
Dr. Matelic, the Rangers’ team doctor, spent the next several minutes assessing the injury on the sideline.
“He gave me all these tests to see if it was broken and I passed all those so I was pretty hopeful,” Nehls described. “After icing it for about five minutes, I went to stand on it and I couldn’t put any weight on it at all.”
Nehls spent the rest of the game on the sidelines supported by crutches.
“I was just cheering on the rest of the guys hoping we could finish it out with a win… and, we did,” Nehls said. “David Evens really stepped up and so did our offensive line. [Quarterback] Justin Chopp really played a great game. It was a great team effort to finish it out.”
The Rangers, under the tutelage of first-year head coach Tim Rogers, outlasted the defending state champs from Zeeland West in one of the highest scoring games in FHC history, 59-58. But, the celebration for the team was short-lived. The next morning brought the bad news.
The Morning After
The next morning, Nehls met with Dr. Matelic to get an MRI and x-rays. According to Nehls, the first two x-rays didn’t show a break, but Matelic didn’t think it was just a sprain so he had him take a stress x-ray. That’s when Nehls found out that he tore his cismosis ligament which caused his ankle bone to come up and separate his tibia and fibula. Surgery was scheduled for the next day.
“I was speechless [when I found out I was out for the year],” Nehls said. “I broke down and cried. I didn’t listen to anything else he said. He [Matelic] was just as choked up as I was when he had to tell me because he knows me really well. He was just about as sad as I was. It was a rough morning. I heard the worst news I could possibly hear for an ankle injury.”
The team was in the weight room Saturday morning for their weight lifting and film session. Assistant coach Brady Blackwell said Nehls walked into the weight room and everybody’s attention turned toward him.
“He shows up on crutches and in a boot and he balls,” Blackwell described. “He’s just gotten the word that he’s out for the year. He came into the weight room while we were lifting. Everyone just kinda stopped and looked at him and he lost it. And then Schlosser went over to him and gave him a big hug. He had to get out to gather himself.”
Senior lineman Chris Bosscher was there when Nehls came into the weight room.
“We were lifting,” Bosscher said. “It got pretty emotional. Nobody really talked and everybody stopped. It got silent in the weight room.”
Senior linebacker Derek Smith echoed Bosscher’s story.
“It was shocking and everyone stopped,” Smith said. “Nobody knew what to say. I couldn’t imagine being in his situation.”
The next day, Nehls headed into surgery — again with Dr. Matelic.
“They used one big screw,” Nehls described matter of factly. “They connected my fibula to my tibia because they separated.”
FHC Athletic trainer Janae Start said Nehls was a unique patient from the start because of his curiousity.
“He wanted to know exactly what was going on in his ankle,” Start said. “He wanted to know about the ligaments and the bones. Usually, athletes just ask how long they will be out and what they have to do.”
Nehls said his interest in medicine has been piqued by the injury.
“It’s kinda interesting to me,” Nehls said. “I’ve always thought about going into medicine. And, one area is orthopedics. I guess if I was going to have to tell everyone why I’m not playing I might as well be well-informed on what exactly happened.”
The recovery for Nehls will be long, but he is focused on returning for his senior lacrosse season.
“I will be in a cast for 12 weeks,” Nehls said with a sigh. “As long as everything goes according to plan, I should get the screw out in 12-16 weeks. I should be back up to full strength by the middle of March.”
Nehls – the son, leader and teammate
Nehls’ mom, Kay, never worried about him getting hurt in football or lacrosse.
“I never had that fear,” she said. “I might have it in college, but I didn’t have it in high school football.”
But, that night is one she’ll always remember.
“At first, I didn’t even know that he was the one that was down. All of a sudden, we said ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Spence.’ We didn’t know who it was at first.”
She said she was hoping it was just a sprain. But, the next day she received the bad news.
The bad news was heartbreaking for head coach Rogers.
“[After I found out], I couldn’t stop thinking how much of an injustice it was that Spencer would never play high school football again,” Rogers said.
He credits Nehls for smoothing the transition to a new coaching staff.
“He bought into me and what I am trying to do with the FHC Football program going forward,” Rogers said. “When others saw that Spencer was on board, he brought the entire team with him.
“Regardless of his standing as an athlete, he is a down-to-earth teenager who respects those around him. Never once did I see him talk down to a teammate or lower level player. He is a good person who has a good heart.”
Nehls’ teammates credit him for pushing everyone to do their best.
“He’s that guy that -he’s not going to get up and yell at you — but he’s always running hard,” senior Chris Bosscher said. “ If you’re running next to him you’ll go harder because you know how hard he is working.”
Senior center Luke Smeester agreed.
“Spence worked out really hard this off-season,” Smeester said. “He motivated other people to get going — if he’s in for it all, let’s get with him.”
Nehls mother is most proud of this dedication to the group.
“[I’m most proud of] his heart, his commitment to the team,” she said. “From when he was little to now, he has always been a team player. He has never wanted to be important. He always cared about his team. I’m proud of him for his character and his heart.”
Nehls will now look to impact the team in ways other than busting through the line for big gains or chasing down receivers from his cornerback position. Now, he’ll have a much different role to play. And, according to his head coach, he’s already taking that next step.
“We have all our games and our opponents online with a service called Hudl,” Rogers said. “I am able to track how much the players get online and watch film as they prepare for an upcoming opponent. I just looked at the player participation today, four days after Spencer’s injury, he still is online watching film. He has been out at practice mentoring David Evens, helping me to get David ready to play. He is not sitting around feeling sorry for himself.”
For Nehls, this is just part of his job as a captain.
“I’m just trying to help out the team in any way I can,” he said. “If I see something I tell coach about it. Maybe a certain play that could help us against the team we’re playing.”
Nehls still hopes to play college football; Rogers knows there will be a place for him.
“We have not seen the last of Spencer Nehls,” Rogers said. “ If he wants to play college football I know many coaches who will be interested in having them on their team.”
Nehls hasn’t made any specific plans, but he his ultimate goal is to continue playing.
“I am pretty undecided about my future,” Nehls said. “I don’t know my opportunities. I will have to see what schools are still interested after finding out that I’m not going to have a senior season to evaluate. [I would] definitely love to play college ball somewhere.”
Schlosser knows it will be a challenge for the team moving forward, but he is convinced the team’s goals should not change.
“It doesn’t change our goals,” Schlosser said. “We want to win a conference championship. We just need some other kids to step up and make some plays. We can still accomplish everything that we want to…all of our goals are still attainable.”