The shrieks from Nate Walberer were deafening.
But the following 15 minutes of silence also spoke volumes of what players and fans witnessed in Falcon on the football field April 24, 2020.
Walberer, Harrison High School offensive lineman, took a helmet to his left knee which shredded major ligaments in his leg — including the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL, which controls the rotation and forward motion of the shin bone), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL, which controls backward movement of the shin), the medial collateral ligament (MCL, connects the thigh bone to the shin bone inside the knee and stablizes the inner knee), IT band and various other ligaments while making a routine tackle during a junior varsity game.
He ripped off his helmet — he said it made sense at the time — and clutched his leg as it began to swell and turn purple.
Regarding the injury, Harrison trainer James Riley said, “The only thing holding his leg together was skin and a prayer.”
Catastrophe on the gridiron
The Panthers junior varsity football team traveled to Falcon to play the aptly named Falcons for a tilt on the gridiron on that fateful day more than two years ago.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the sports calendar, teams could play football in the fall or spring in 2020. The Panthers elected to play spring ball, which gave them a March through May schedule.
The contest against Falcon felt normal until a designed run play for the Falcons became disastrous for Harrison.
“I remember Falcon’s running back going up the middle because I was originally making the tackle,” Walberer said. “I don’t know who hit me because I was making the tackle. Next thing I know, I got hit on my left side and I’m on the ground screaming. I threw my helmet off and people knew something bad happened.”
Shortly after play stopped, coaches gathered around the then-sophomore to assess the damage.
“My [left foot] was pointed to the left but the top of my thigh was straight up. My knee was dislocated bad,” Walberer said. “My mom and my friends came onto the field. … I knew I was done for the rest of the season because of how painful it was.”
Walberer’s mother, Elizabeth, said she didn’t realize her son was injured until his teammate Antonio Camey-Valdez alerted her.
“I came down to the sidelines because they don’t want parents to come on the field,” Elizabeth said. “There seemed to be confusion with what was going on. With my medical background, I said ‘I need to go out there.’ I looked at his leg. It was purple and I’m like, ‘We can’t move him.’ When I said don’t move him, the Falcon coach moved his leg and it popped.”
Walberer said: “It was a loud pop, everybody heard it.”
Elizabeth wasn’t upset at Falcon’s coach for moving her son’s leg and said, “The damage had been done at that point and there’s no anger toward Falcon.”
Elizabeth then called an ambulance to transfer her son to the hospital.
Elizabeth said 30 minutes passed between the injury and an ambulance arriving to transport Walberer to Penrose St. Francis Hospital.
Walberer received an X-ray, a knee brace and crutches. Elizabeth, who is a part of the United States Air Force Academy’s 10th Medical Group, said radiologist didn’t feel an MRI was necessary.
“They only do MRIs in the emergency room if they fear there’s a lack of circulation,” Elizabeth said. “At that point, his coloring had come back. They gave him a brace and crutches and told us to follow up with our [primary care provider].”
One of Elizabeth’s friends, Maj. Keeley Katrein, 10th Medical Group physician assistant, set up Walberer with an MRI on April 26, 2020, and an orthopedic appointment the following day.
Walberer sat in his mother’s office at USAFA with his left leg decorated with a knee brace and clutching crutches as he listened to the aftermath of his injury: torn ACL, PCL, LCL, anterior horn lateral meniscus, posterior capsule and posterior lateral, midsubstance FCL, popliteal tendon avulsions and a strained hamstring.
Listening to the litany of torn ligaments and injuries crushed Walberer to the point of tears.
“When I started looking over it, tears came to my eyes and I started to cry,” Walberer said. “As an athlete, if you hear something like a torn ACL, you’re thinking your career is over. Hearing that much really hurt.”
Despite the residue of heartbreak from learning of his season-ending injury, Walberer refused to let Falcon be his last contest.
Walberer had surgery later that week at Fort Carson with Lt. Col. Richard Robins, who serves as the head team physician on the sports medicine service at USAFA.
“Dr. Robins asked him, ‘Do you still want to play football?’” Elizabeth said. “[Nate said], ‘Yeah, I don’t want this to be the end of my career.’ Dr. Robins told him they’d get him back to playing.”
Arduous road to glory
Walberer’s nine-month left knee rehab began at Strive Physical Therapy with a setback.
“Physical therapists tried to get me hours after surgery to start some therapy, but as soon as I put a little bit of pressure on my big toe, I blacked out,” Walberer said. “I was out cold. I was at the hospital from Wednesday to Saturday evening.”
Therapists also tested to see how long Walberer could balance on one leg with aspirations of hitting half a minute. Walberer barely made it to 15 seconds.
One week after therapy, though, Walberer took proverbial baby steps and put more pressure on his left leg.
By Aug. 27, 2021, Harrison’s season opener against Glenwood Springs, Walberer ditched one crutch as pain gradually subsided. He said “it sucked,” but he endured.
Meanwhile, Walberer continued his vigorous work to rebuild his quadriceps after losing excessive mass in his left leg.
His regimen included bodyweight squats, leg extensions, leg raises and side leg raises.
“There was a lot of bending [my leg] at first because they wanted to get me to 100 degrees,” Walberer said. “The physical therapist and my doctors were impressed with how fast I started recovering.”
As Walberer progressed, he dropped from three days of physical therapy per week, to two and eventually down to one session.
During his recovery, Walberer also switched from Strive Physical Therapy to Fyzical Therapy and Balance Centers.
“I wanted to go to a more sports-focused physical therapy center,” Walberer said. “At Strive, their therapy was to get you back to everyday life. I still wanted to play football.”
"Tough times create tough people and he has modeled that.”
— Rob Leboeuf
Walberer’s activity at Fyzical included sports-related movements such as jogging, cuts and pivots.
By January, Walberer stopped going to physical therapy to focus on weightlifting at Harrison, which doctors cleared him for in September 2021.
Walberer’s gym teacher, Darius Graves, assisted him in the weight room. Walberer joined Graves for his 6 a.m. sessions and swiftly noticed change.
When Walberer began lifting in January, he struggled to squat 135 pounds, around two times less his previous max of 275 pounds. By April, Walberer could hit 425 pounds for a single repetition.
“Graves helped me a lot with getting back into the football mindset,” Walberer said. “We did footwork drills, light running and weights. It was important to my progress.”
Walberer eventually rebuilt his leg to a point where he could play football again. The final test was clearing the mental hurdle to return to action.
16 months later
Walberer didn’t participate in any summer workouts for the Panthers football team and for a commendable reason.
The senior was one of three Harrison School District 2 JROTC students who earned a pilot’s license last summer. He spent his summer at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, which kept him away from football.
Harrison football coach Rob Leboeuf had concerns about Walberer missing time before a potential varsity run, but Walberer swiftly squashed those worries.
That’s because event though he couldn’t play on the field, he never stopped being interested in the game. He spent his junor year filming games for the Panthers — and he became cerebral at understanding each position on the line.
“[Nate] said ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing’ and sure enough he did,” Leboeuf said. “In my opinion, he was one of our most consistent; I’m not saying most dominant, but most consistent players. I think that was because he invested himself in the program even though he couldn’t physically participate. He got ready mentally. And, on top of that, he was ready to do stuff with us at the start of the summer, but he had an obligation at Purdue to get his pilot’s license which we’re very proud of.”
Prior to their season opener against Widefield, Walberer learned he’d start on the offensive line.
The news overwhelmed the senior and he felt grateful to know he earned his coaches’ trust.
“I cried when I went home. I went through months of physical therapy, all the time with Coach Graves in the weight room and so many people who helped me get to where I’m at right now,” Walberer said. “I felt like a little kid and I was extremely happy. I went home and told my mom.”
After 16 months on the sidelines, Walberer made his return Aug. 26 against Widefield.
It took a couple of games, but his precision on the offensive line, impressed coaches and quelled any jitters he had prior to his return.
Walberer’s methodical approach resembled a grandmaster pouring over a chess board; no unnecessary decisions, concise steps to provide optimal protection and impeccable defense to serve whomever required his efforts.
At home against Pueblo South on Oct. 21, Leboeuf said Walberer provided the key block in the fourth quarter for teammate Carlos Preciado to get Harrison on the board and seal the game.
“To be able to come back from an injury like Nate had and not only be able to contribute, but play at a high level, is incredible,” Leboeuf said. “Our offensive line was a huge part of our success in addition to our stout defense. Nate and our O-line have been an anchor of this team all year.”
The Panthers returned to the playoffs this year following a hiatus in 2021. Elizabeth joked that they’ve made the postseason every year her son played at Harrison.
“I’m biased because I’m his mom, but I like to think they did so well because he’s back,” Elizabeth said. “They didn’t do so well last year, but they made the playoffs when he came back.”
For Walberer, Harrison’s Class 3A playoff matchup against Durango was his lone taste of the postseason.
He cherished those final moments on the field against the Demons, despite the lopsided 42-13 defeat. But he and his coaches remain proud of what he accomplished after his grotesque injury.
“It would have been easy for him to feel disconnected from the team like he’s not a part of it because of the injury and the fact that he couldn’t contribute,” Leboeuf said. “For him to come back from that kind of adversity and how gruesome the injury was and what that could do to you mentally speaks volumes. Tough times create tough people and he has modeled that.”
Walberer usually wrestles in the winter, but said he won’t compete this season.
While the injury will keep him off the mat, it still won’t stop Walberer from supporting his teammates.
“I don’t want to take the risk of re-injuring my leg,” Walberer said. “I still have a lot of years after high school sports. But I’m going to be out there to support my friends.”