BOZEMAN — It was a nondescript juncture late in Montana State’s season-opening victory last Thursday night against Fort Lewis.
The game was in the bag with 4 minutes and 8 seconds left on a waning clock, and the Bobcats’ defense was back on the field to try to shut down the Division II Skyhawks one final time. Many of the 19,367 fans who packed Bobcat Stadium had already left.
That’s when linebacker Koni Dole ran onto the field for the first time as a college football player. Dole, propped up by the football-specific prosthetic he’s used since having his right leg amputated during his junior year at Huntley Project, was achieving an important personal milestone.
Focused and ready, Dole helped MSU’s defense stuff Fort Lewis on that final series to put the nail in a 45-14 victory.
He’d dreamt of playing football for the Bobcats since childhood and had checked that achievement off his long list of goals.
“It was pretty emotional for me, coming up on three years since the amputation,” Dole said after Montana State’s practice Tuesday afternoon. “I mean, I just never thought I’d be here, looking back.”
Dole’s story is well-detailed.
On Oct. 19, 2012, in the regular-season finale between Huntley Project and Shepherd, Dole suffered a horrific compound fracture to his right leg that required six surgeries. He soon developed compartment syndrome, and in an effort to save his athletic career he made the agonizing decision to have his leg amputated below the knee.
Dole eventually returned to the field as a senior at Huntley Project after months of rehab and recovery — and with the help of a football-specific prosthetic.
He walked on to the Montana State football team and redshirted during the 2014 season. He trudged through fall camp under the hot August sun in the run-up to this season, fighting for playing time at both the middle and weak-side linebacker positions.
“There were days when I wanted to give up, but I never take a day for granted,” the 6-foot, 210-pounder said. “You have to remember it’s just a game. Football is just a game. I could be doing a lot worse. I try to come out here with a smile on my face and have as much fun as I can.”
Dole, known as “the excuse eliminator” in MSU circles, has mandated that his coaches and teammates accept him as a football player — not as an amputee playing football. He wants to be evaluated strictly on the merits of his ability on the field.
In the defensive series he played against Fort Lewis, Dole seemed to be in the correct spots. He was right around the ball on one play when the Bobcats’ stuffed backup quarterback Allen Thigpen for a 2-yard loss.
But Dole, true to his attitude, wasn’t fulfilled.
“Watching the film and going over it with the coaches, I did my job,” Dole said. “There were some things I could have done different, but for the most part I did what I was supposed to do. And that’s the No. 1 thing. When you’re playing out here with 10 other people, it’s college football and you have to do your job.”
“To see him out there running around and making some plays, it was fun to watch,” MSU co-defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said.
“I remind myself that Koni is another guy and another football player that wants to earn his way on the field, and he’s doing that. We’re just hoping that he continues to progress and continues to have that fire and desire to get more time on the field.”
Jay Murray of Treasure State Orthotics and Prosthetics in Billings has worked closely with Dole on his long road to normalcy.
Murray was not watching when Dole got on the field against Fort Lewis, but he knew something big had happened when his phone wouldn’t stop buzzing.
“From Day 1 when Koni came into my office, his can-do attitude was infectious, but it was more that he wasn’t going to let anything stop him from achieving his dream,” Murray said. “If you look at it in tiers, his goal was to get back into sports, get back on the field with his high school team, get back to a normal life, but his No. 1 dream, even as a small kid, was to play football for the Bobcats. It’s something we discussed quite often.
“Knowing that he has touched the field and he was able to play in that game, he was able to reach a lifelong dream not only as an amputee but also as a football player. I couldn’t be more impressed.”
His moment has arrived. But now that he’s had a taste, Dole won’t stop striving for more — “He wants to play every down,” Murray said.
There will always be something else to achieve.
“I’m out here competing with everyone else,” Dole said. “I know I’ve gotten a lot better since I’ve gotten here. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable on my leg. But I keep telling myself that there are always things I can keep working on, and that’s what I’m focusing on.
“It’s just part of the overall goal. I want to contribute to this team and play for this team — whatever I can do. I just want to find my role on this team.”