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.”