The grim-faced medical personnel at Pullman Regional Hospital did not tell James Montgomery his life was in danger, or that they might have to amputate his left leg if they did not operate immediately.
No, they went easy on Montgomery on that fateful Sunday morning last September. They only told Montgomery his season was over, his career might be finished and it was possible he would never walk properly again.
Less than a year later, Montgomery has been named the starting running back at Washington State. Without playing a game, Montgomery might be the national comeback player of the year.
“I spent so much time in the training room, they call me ‘Wonder Body,’” Montgomery says with one of his frequent laughs.
Montgomery has always laughed, smiled and joked frequently. Combined with his considerable skills — Scout.com ranked him 20th in the nation among high school senior running backs in 2005 — it’s easy to see why Montgomery quickly became popular with his Cougar teammates after transferring to WSU from California in 2008.
“He’s a great dude,” says WSU quarterback Marshall Lobbestael. “Great dude.”
The life of the “great dude” from Rancho Cordova, Calif., took a dramatic turn for the worse last Sept. 19. Montgomery came out of the Southern Methodist game — which turned out to be WSU’s lone victory of the season — in the fourth quarter with a seemingly minor calf injury.
“The calf wasn’t really hurting at the time,” Montgomery says. “It was just a little swelling. It didn’t feel like anything was wrong. It felt like your normal after-the-game pain.”
Normal pain turned into excruciating pain during the night.
“It felt like somebody was just pumping it up all through the night, just pumping more and more pressure up in the leg,” Montgomery says. “It got to the point where it felt like there was a brick in there. It felt like I was flexing my muscle as hard I could, nonstop.”
Soon after Montgomery arrived at Pullman Regional at 6 a.m. the day after the game, he was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome — impaired blood supply in a small area. Dr. Ed Tingstad, a former WSU running back, quickly performed surgery.
“He comes in and he tells me, ‘Your season is over and we don’t know if you’re ever going to be able to walk right,’” Montgomery recalls. “Then they brought the morphine. He didn’t tell me anything was life-threatening, so I wasn’t that scared at the time.”
Only later did Dr. Tingstad inform Montgomery that amputation or even death would have been likely if surgery had been delayed a few hours.
“It changes your whole outlook on everything,” Montgomery says.
Montgomery is not the boastful sort, but he says he plans to run for “at least“ 100 yards when the Cougars open the season at Oklahoma State.
That would be at least 100 yards more than Montgomery expected to gain the rest of his life when he was lying in the hospital a year ago.
“From what everybody was telling me, I thought it was over,” Montgomery says. “But then it started progressing fast. By Christmas break, I knew I had a shot.”
“He’s done a great job of working through it and having the right perspective on it,” Lobbestael said. “I think it shows a lot about his character.”
“I couldn’t be happier for somebody, I really couldn’t,” coach Paul Wulff said.
Montgomery sat out spring football practice following arthroscopic surgery in December for a micro-fracture in his right knee.
“The first four or five months, it would get really sore … I came back after Fourth of July, and everything felt good,” Montgomery says.
Montgomery is on track to graduate in December with a general studies degree. He dreams of playing in the NFL next year, but said he might apply for a medical hardship year to gain one more season of college eligibility after being limited to three games, 167 rushing yards and one touchdown last year.
“I just want to see how this year goes first,” Montgomery says. “I just want to get out there. I just want to play in all the games. Just show everybody what I can do. If I can still do anything.”
College Football Preview 2010-11
EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES
2010 Predicted Finish: 2nd in nine-team Big Sky Conference (Big Sky coaches poll).
National Rank: 14th in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS coaches poll).
2009 Record: 8-4 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (2nd).
Coach: Beau Baldwin (3rd year, 14-9).
Thumbs Up: LB J.C. Sherritt, RB Taiwan Jones and DL Renard Williams are preseason All-Americans. Sherritt, a Pullman High School product, led the FCS with a Big Sky-record 14.17 tackles per game last year. The speedy Jones, who ran for more than 1,200 yards last season, should benefit now that Eastern has ditched natural grass for the world’s first red artificial turf field. Junior QB Levi Bo Mitchell, who transferred from Southern Methodist after losing his starting job last year, arrives just in time to replace All-American Matt Nichols.
Thumbs down: The Eagles lost 17 seniors who combined to make 350 starts, and that’s why a 1-4 start can’t be ruled out. Nevada will be favored in the opener at Reno; Eastern should handle NCAA Division II power Central Washington on Nov. 11 at Seattle’s Qwest Field; the home opener is against second-ranked Montana; that game will be followed by tough road tests the next two weeks against No. 24 Montana State and No. 18 Weber State.
Chalk Talk: Coach Beau Baldwin — “We obviously lose some big-time players but … there shouldn’t be any reason for a letdown. Our goals are to fight for the Big Sky Conference title and contend for a (national) playoff berth.”
Howie Sez: If Williams and company create enough mayhem up front to give the inexperienced secondary time to develop, the Eagles have a shot at the 12-time defending Big Sky champs from Montana. It remains to be seen if Eagle fans will outnumber the fanatical Grizzly fans when the two teams meet in Cheney.
Season opener is Thursday, Sept. 2 at Nevada, 6 pm. (No TV, KXLI 700 AM.) For tickets, call (866) 4-GO-EAGS.
2010 Predicted Finish: 4th in the seven-team Northwest Conference (NWC coaches poll).
National Rank: No votes in NCAA Division III Top 25 poll.
2009 Record: 5-5 overall, 3-3 Northwest Conference (tied for 3rd).
Coach: John Tully (16th year, 80-63).
Thumbs Up: Senior Adam Anderson, one of the top small-college running backs in the country two years ago, was granted a medical redshirt year by the NCAA after missing most of last season with a sprained ankle. The former Idaho Vandal ran for 1,259 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2008. With Anderson grinding up yards and time off the clock, the defense should be able to handle the rest, since nine starters return.
Thumbs Down: The quarterbacks and wide receivers are inexperienced, so Whitworth’s offense remains a one-trick pony. If the pony goes lame again, the Pirates are doomed.
Chalk Talk: Coach John Tully — “If Adam can return to form and we can find the players on the outside who can vertically stretch a defense, then we have the chance to be very good offensively.”
Howie Sez: After opening the season against 15th-ranked Hardin-Simmons of Abilene, Texas, the Pirates play five of their next six games on the road. Just four of Whitworth’s 10 games will be played at the picturesque Pine Bowl. In other words, Whitworth fans don’t need to save up for postseason travel.
Season opener is Saturday, Sept. 4 at home vs. Hardin-Simmons, 1 pm. (No TV, KSBN 1230 AM.) For tickets, call 777-1000.
2010 Predicted Finish: 6th in the nine-team Western Athletic Conference (WAC coaches poll).
National Rank: 76th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams (Sporting News magazine).
2009 Record: 8-5 overall, 4-4 WAC (4th).
Coach: Robb Akey (Fourth year, 11-26).
Thumbs Up: Senior QB Nate Enderle and most of Idaho’s other top skill-position players return after last year’s stunning turnaround culminated in a Humanitarian Bowl win over Bowling Green. Talented senior safety Shiloh Keo is one of 10 returning starters on defense.
Thumbs Down: All-American guard Mike Iupati, the San Francisco 49ers’ first-round draft pick, departed along with all but one other starter on the offensive line. Lost amid all the hoopla over Idaho’s surprising success last year is the fact that the Vandals gave up 157 points in their last three games.
Chalk Talk: Coach Robb Akey on Idaho’s defensive players — “You see a different swagger in them. We have more size, more speed.”
Howie Sez: Even if the Cougars fire coach Paul Wulff after the season, Akey — aka Mr. Inspirational — won’t be the pick to replace Wulff, despite that prediction being made by Sporting News football writer Matt Hayes. Akey’s stock at WSU took a hit when he was part of Bill Doba’s Cougar coaching staff, which allowed recruiting to slip to shockingly inept levels.
Season opener is Thursday, Sept. 2 at home vs. North Dakota, 6 p.m. (Altitude TV, KGA 1510 AM.) For tickets, call (888) 884-3246.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
2010 Predicted Finish: 10th in the 10-team Pacific-10 Conference (Pac-10 media poll).
National Rank: 102nd in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision (Sporting News magazine).
2009 Record: 1-11 overall, 0-9 Pac-10 (10th).
Coach: Paul Wulff (Third year, 3-22).
Thumbs Up: Sophomore QB Jeff Tuel and true freshman WR Marquess Wilson show signs of developing into a dynamic duo. Senior RB James Montgomery is set to start less than a year after a calf operation may have saved his life. Junior DT Brandon Rankin, a junior college transfer, looks like the first game-changer on WSU’s defense in years. Veteran offensive line coach Steve Morton has returned to Pullman and appears to be making progress with a group that has been flat-out horrendous for two years.
Thumbs Down: The Cougars are stronger, faster and deeper than in Wulff’s first two seasons, but they’re still too young, inexperienced and lacking in depth to win consistently. The defense is guilty ‘til proven innocent after finishing last in the nation a year ago with a mind-boggling 512 yards allowed per game. Of course, the defense was on the field all the time because WSU’s offense ranked next-to-last nationally, with just 248.5 yards per game.
Chalk Talk: QB Jeff Tuel on all the last-place predictions for WSU — “It’s motivation. Nothing else matters but what we believe in our hearts and minds, and we know what we can do. We’re going to win games and we’re going to surprise people.”
Howie Sez: The Cougs will save Wulff’s job by winning at least three games this season: The home opener with Montana State on Sept. 11; at SMU on Sept. 18; at UCLA on Oct. 2; and, if Washington QB Jake Locker is injured or kidnapped, in the Apple Cup on Dec. 4 in fr-fr-fr-freezing Pullman.
Season opener is Saturday, Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State), 4 pm. (FSN, KXLY 920.) For tickets, call (800) GO-COUGS.