“You’ve got a torn ACL.”
It’s one of the worst diagnoses an athlete can receive. For a typical high school athlete, the diagnosis usually means their athletic year is over; for a senior, it means their high school career is likely done.
Colton Grindle isn’t your typical athlete.
After completing his junior year at Waunakee High School, Grindle was primed for a big finale in 2019-20. He was the reigning Badger Conference Champion at 170 pounds – and a state qualifier – in wrestling, and was poised to start at linebacker in the fall for a talented Warrior football team bound for a deep playoff run. That finale came crashing down on the eve before Waunakee’s season-opening scrimmage on a routine play in practice.
“I was just running down the field, non-contact on a kickoff, and right away, I heard a loud snap,” said Grindle of how the injury occurred. “I just dropped to the ground and right away I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t move my leg; it stiffened up, and I couldn’t put any weight on it.”
“[UW Health Athletic Trainer for Waunakee] Matt [Uftring] called me up and told me. I couldn’t believe it, but he told me he was dead serious…” Grindle’s dad and Assistant Wrestling Coach Troy Grindle said of the call he received Aug. 14. “It was the hardest thing we’ve ever gone through as a family by far… As a parent, when were my wife Denise and I, when were we ready for it? I don’t think you ever really are.”
Fearing the worst, Uftring and fellow athletic trainer Drew Lucas put Grindle’s left knee through some tests, feeling how it responded. With their fears confirmed, Uftring broke the news in the training room: the diagnosis was a torn anterior cruciate ligament. At first, Grindle had the same thoughts running through his head as all athletes who hear such news: his season was over. Surgery, rehab, and a senior year on the sidelines were the inevitable outcome.
“I was so in disbelief,” added Colton. “I was like, ‘No, Matt. This is my year; it’s my senior year. Even with a torn ACL, there’s got to be a chance…’ I didn’t know what I was going to do without sports.”
Looking for any chance to salvage his senior year, the Grindles met with UW Health Orthopedic Surgeon Geoffrey Baer, searching for a glimmer of hope. Baer told the family that while there are examples of athletes who have competed without an ACL, the odds were stacked against Grindle.
“He said, ‘Yes, there’s been people to do it… But it’s almost impossible to do,’” Colton said of Baer’s prognosis. “I was going to give it a shot.”
A team that included Uftring, Lucas and Shannon Carpenter at GHC put Grindle to work, rehabbing his knee to the point where it could withstand the grind of a football and wrestling season.
To many, how a knee can even function without an ACL is the first question that comes to mind. The answer lies in making the muscles surrounding the knee strong enough to do the job of a ligament.
“What you had to do was get the musculature to fire off and actually take over for the ACL,” said Uftring. “It’s never going to do as good of a job, but there’s been a few athletes that have been able to make it through with no ACL.”
Keeping a positive mindset throughout a grueling rehab scheduled also proved crucial. Instead of constantly referring to his left knee as “the bad knee,” Uftring and Grindle decided to give it an intriguing nickname: Thurman, after to Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills runningback Thurman Thomas, who played his entire professional career for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills with a torn left ACL.
Grindle dove head-first into the rehab, working every day to make his comeback to the football field.
“It was PT every day, sometimes two to three times a day, every day before practice. It was pushing my knee farther than I thought I could push it…” Colton said. “A lot of running on it, jumping on it, pulling and pushing, putting the knee in dangerous spots to see how your knee reacts so they can help fix it.”
As the days turned to weeks, a comeback didn’t appear to be in the cards. Weeks’ worth of rehab didn’t seem to be making a difference, with Grindle noticing no improvements to his knee. Still, he kept plugging away, working day after day to get back on the field.
After months of work, Grindle was finally cleared to step foot on the field for the Warrior football team on Oct. 4, in Week 7 of the season. Waunakee traveled to Reedsburg in a hard-fought Badger North contest that came down to the wire, with the Warriors ultimately walking away with a 35-28 victory.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking. It was so hard to trust my knee; I was always paying attention to it right away,” Colton said of his thoughts finally stepping onto the football field for the first time as a senior. “Once I got in and we started rolling, plays were getting called, and my teammates encouraging me, being surrounded with such great energy that we had on our team, it helped me take my mind off it. I’m just playing football now… It was probably the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
Three weeks later, the Warriors opened their playoff schedule with a contest against Badger South rival Monona Grove, and Grindle was hit with a major setback that had the potential to completely erase both the rest of the football season and his wrestling return.
“He buckled his knee really bad in a game, which tore his meniscus – it’s called a bucket-handle tear – in the first round of the playoffs,” said Troy of the injury, which rendered Colton unable to walk without crutches. “Rehab time for that is three months. In three months, wrestling season is over.”
One more time, the Grindles headed to Dr. Baer, looking for hope. Baer offered a chance: a surgery to repair his meniscus would cost Grindle the remainder of his football season, but it gave him a shot – if all went well – to return to the wrestling mat midway through the season.
“Dr. Baer said, ‘I can get you in and I can sew it up. I can’t guarantee anything, but in six weeks, you can have a shot to try to come back and finish out the wrestling season…’” Troy said. “Six weeks later, he was wrestling.”
The uncertainty surrounding Grindle’s return posed a significant challenge for the Waunakee Wrestling coaching staff.
“How do you replace somebody that you were counting on for the last three, four, five months?” asked Waunakee’s Head Wrestling Coach Mark Natzke. “Going in, was he going to be able to or wasn’t he? Could he or not?”
Grindle continued to grind behind the scenes in rehab, working day by day to strengthen his knee while the meniscus healed. Even when he was finally cleared to practice, the concern about another setback was on everybody’s mind.
“He did most of his work with his dad and assistant coach because they knew where and what to do,” said Natzke. “That was the one big thing in practice: to make sure nobody did anything that would put it in danger. Until you actually got on the mat, you really don’t know how that’s going to hold up.”
Grindle put much of those uncertainties to rest upon his return to the mat on January 3. Once again in Reedsburg, Grindle was triumphant in his return, pinning his opponent in 2:31 to earn his first of many wins as a senior, dominating despite cramps and a bundle of equipment attached to his leg.
“We first taped it, then we put a sleeve over it, then we put a brace, and then a sleeve over that, and then taped the sleeve to my leg so it wouldn’t fall off…” Colton said of the hulking apparatus needed to secure his knee during competition. “It was really hard to take my mind off that and focus on wrestling. Once I could get past that point, yeah there were some things that limited me: I wasn’t as fast as I was last year, I wasn’t as strong as I was on it last year. But the amount of time we put into it – me and the coaching staff – into forming my wrestling style to help my knee be comfortable and keep up. Once I got done with that and knew what to limit myself to and knew how to wrestle kids, from there it was easy. It was just wrestling.”
Once comfortable – or at least as comfortable as a wrestler with a torn ACL will ever be – Grindle rolled through his senior campaign, racking up a 20-4 record. He defeated Baraboo’s Aiden Estes to cap a 3-0 day at the Badger Conference Tournament to claim back-to-back titles at 170 pounds as the Warriors won the Badger North crown as a team.
At sectionals, Estes again stood in the way of Grindle’s second goal on the season: a return to the WIAA Individual Wrestling State Tournament. One last time, Grindle wouldn’t be denied, earning a pin against Estes to secure his spot at state for the second consecutive year.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Colton said of the pair of victories over Estes. “to prove to everybody that said, ‘You can’t wrestle on a torn ACL, it can’t be done, you won’t be as good as you were last year.’ Then to go out and beat a kid who was ranked higher than me [to win conference], who everyone thought would beat me. Two weeks later, beat him again to go to state. It was such a great feeling.”
Grindle hit the mat at the Kohl Center twice at the state tournament, ultimately bowing out in Day 2. Looking back, he and his family have no regrets over the long, difficult path it took to end his senior season as one of the best in the state at the Kohl Center, proving all the doubters wrong in the process.
“When this happened, it was really hard for us as a family,” said Troy. “After he tore his knee again in football playoffs – as a wrestling coach – I didn’t think he could do it. I’m so damn proud that he did, because I did not think he could do it. I really didn’t.”
“The most satisfying feeling is just right now after the season’s done,” added Colton. “Looking back and looking at everything I accomplished and looking at all the people that said I couldn’t. Showing them that I could.”
With the season over, Grindle can finally receive the knee surgery he’s put off for so long. After his surgery at the end of March and later graduation from Waunakee High School, he’ll head to UW-Platteville, where he’ll play football and potentially work to earn a spot on their wrestling team. While he’s certainly faced with another long road of rehab and work, there’s little doubt Grindle will be able to handle it this time around.
“I’m so impressed that he had the wherewithal and the grit to do it. Kids attacked his knee: they did,” said Troy. “He doesn’t quit. He’s the toughest, grittiest kid I’ve ever coached. His mental toughness is not teachable, it’s not trainable.”
“While at times, it seemed like this is going for nothing, and when he had the meniscus setback and surgery – which made it even longer – it could be very easy for a high school kid to just say, ‘I’m done. This isn’t worth it. This is too hard and too much; let’s just get the surgery, get it fixed and get it over with.’ But he kept battling back,” added Natzke. “Wrestling is one sport that helps teach that in all kids, but it takes a special person to do that. You’ve got to commend him for that.”
Going forward, nobody ought to be surprised the next time Grindle steps into the arena, having completed another comeback. Remember: Colton Grindle isn’t your typical athlete.