‘UNTOUCHABLE FEELING’

Project star returns to field less than a year after amputation

2013-08-31T18:17:00Z 2014-09-17T23:43:05Z Project star returns to field less than a year after amputationBy EDDIE GREGG egregg@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

WORDEN -- On Oct. 28, 2012, surgeons amputated Koni Dole’s right leg below the knee.

For most high school football players, that amputation would have shattered any dreams of ever competing on the field again.

For Dole, it was the only way he would have a chance to play football again.

Just days earlier, during the last quarter of the last game of the Huntley Project Red Devil’s season, Dole suffered a compound fracture on the field.

He went through six surgeries to try to repair his leg, but he developed compartment syndrome in his leg, a painful condition in which swelling and pressure robs muscle and tissue of proper blood flow.

Surgeons presented Dole and his parents, Nancy and Fualelei Andy Dole, two options: Dole could keep his leg, which would be dysfunctional, or he could have it amputated and they could hope that he would be able to compete again with the aid of a prosthetic.

Dole didn’t hesitate.

On Oct. 29 — the day after his leg was amputated — he was back in the weight room. And after months of dedicated training with coaches and teammates, learning to run with a prosthetic and fighting through constant pain, the Friday night lights in Worden were shining for Dole as he started the first game of the 2013 season.

“We came out slow, but it all turned out in the end, I guess,” Dole said as he rested at home Saturday afternoon.

The game did turn out: The Red Devils beat Joliet 45-0.

And Dole, who started at fullback on offense and as a lineman on defense, scored two touchdowns in a little more than two quarters of playing time.

His brother, 14-year-old Kai, started the game, too, fulfilling a goal the brothers set after Dole’s surgery.

“(It was an) untouchable feeling to be back out there with my team with all I’ve been through in the last 9, 10 months,” Dole said. “It’s been a long road.”

It took him a fraction of the time it normally takes people to learn to walk and run on a prosthetic.

“Two months after surgery, I forced myself to wrestle, just so I could get out there and compete again,” he said. “I ran track just so I could get on my leg and get running.”

And barely a day has gone by where he hasn't spent hours weightlifting in the gym.

Guy Croy, the head coach at Huntley Project, has been a huge support since the surgery, Dole said. So has Adam Husk, Dole's strength and development coach.

“I had days were I would break down and coach Husk would be there to pat me on the back and tell me ‘Good job,’” Dole said.

The community support has been overwhelming, too, Dole and his family said.

A fundraiser paid for the $30,000 athletic prosthetic that lets him compete. But that blessing comes with constant pain, as the bone in his right leg, which isn't fully healed, grinds into the top of the prosthetic.

“It kills me all the time,” Dole said. “It started hurting (during the game), but it was nothing I couldn’t push through. The feeling of me being out there was overwhelming … taking my mind off the pain.”

Tanner Miller, Dole’s best friend and teammate, said the crowd went crazy when Dole scored his first touchdown.

“It was awesome,” Miller said. “It was one of the most exciting feelings I’ve ever experienced.”

Dole’s mother, Nancy, said she was nervous and excited during the game, but not surprised to see that her son’s hard work has paid off.

“He’s always worked hard like that,” she said, adding that his surgery didn’t change Dole’s drive to succeed. “If anything, it got more intense. That’s nothing new with Koni.”

“I was happy for him, that he made his way back,” Fualelei Dole said of his son. “I mean, he worked hard to get back to where he is. All that effort paid off last night, his first game back."

Dole’s tenacity didn’t just get him back on the field in Worden. He’s also earned a preferred walk-on spot with the Montana State Bobcats, the team he’s dreamed of playing for since he was in middle school.

The motivation, he said, comes from the support of his parents.

“Just the way I was raised, I guess,” Dole said. “I’ve just always wanted to do the best and be the best — go somewhere, you know?”

And when his leg was amputated, “I just didn’t let it hold me back.”

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