Kunze On That Comeback Trail

By Jeremy McDonald


SALEM, Ore.–  It was a longtime coming for South Salem’s Dustin Kunze when he played with the GymClub Squad at the Pylon 7-on-7 tournament two weeks ago.  But it was a step in the right direction.

It’s weird to think that this past Friday would have been Week 2 of the Fall season if it wasn’t for the Coronavirus pandemic and Saxon Linebacker was more than confident, he would have been ready to play.

“Playing 7on7 and competing with the best was the greatest feeling ever. Finding out that you can still compete at a high level is very encouraging. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence,” the South Salem Linebacker said.

It all happened against McNary at South Salem last November, November 1, when the ACL went.  The final quarter of the Celtics 35-15 victory over the Saxons to clinch their second conference title when  Kunze tried to spin off a block when his left foot got caught in the turf.

“As i pivoted I heard a pop and my leg went numb. No initial pain, but I knew something was seriously wrong,” starts Kunze.  “(McNary’s) Junior Walling picked me up from the ground and asked if I was okay. We had been in the same workout group together at the same gym in the summer and during the season. great guy.

“I hobbled off the field. I couldn’t get any push off of my left leg and it gave out sometimes. but i ended up making it to the sideline without help.”

Kunze (with brace) in conversation on the sidelines with the GymClub 7-on team in August (Picture By Jeremy McDonald)

Here’s where things got interesting.

The first doctor couldn’t tell Kunze what it was, so he wasn’t able to get an MRI cleared by insurance.  The doctor told Kunze to comeback in a couple of months if anything was still wrong.

So, for the next three months or so Kunze rehabbed, the doctor told him it probably wasn’t anything serious but the South Salem football player took the precautions.  He was running, jumping and squatting without much trouble.

Occasionally his knee would buckle if he sat for too long.  A clicking was coming from the joint for a long time, enough for him to go back into the doctor, nearly three months after the initial injury.  But he admits after the fact that he was lucky everything held strong over those first few months following the injury.

“I got to January and I was still only around 85-90%. It still didn’t feel completely right, so I went in and we got an MRI for it. Before the MRI the doctor thought it might just be a meniscus tear. After the MRI we found out it was a torn ACL the whole time,” said Kunze.  “I hadn’t done anything to make it worse in rehab, but I found out that everything around my ACL was strong enough to allow me to keep doing what I was doing. My menisci had been keeping my knee stable along with my quad and hamstring muscles.

“When I found out about the torn ACL I was devastated and in the early stages of recovery I was in a very bad place and not very many people knew that. There were a lot of sleepless nights and just trying to tell myself that I’m gonna get through it.”

Kunze catches his breath, preparing for the next play with GymClub on August 29 (Picture By Jeremy McDonald)

The average healing time for an ACL is 8-12 months.  But Kunze slowly became out of the outliers to the time frame.  He was doing what he was told and he realized he was healing faster than most people.

By month two of rehab, he started to do more active rehab.  That’s when he flipped the switch.

“I had a new determined mindset. I started doing rehab twice a day. Once on my own doing exercises and using an IFC (interferential current) machine that shot electrical currents through my leg and activated the muscles around it and once in the rehab clinic doing pool…movements and stretching my knee to the end ranges,” Kunze said.

The brace he was wearing during the 7-on tournament has became a precaution for Kunze, having done most of his rehab without it.  Learning to move correctly and fast without the brace first before even starting to use it.

“Because I did most of my rehab without the brace, I feel very confident without it. I made sure I learned how to move correctly and fast without the brace before I started using it,” Kunze said.  “The brace at this point is just a precaution. I’m 8 months out of surgery and I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at. Even at 6 months I was in a comfortable place.”

Rehab is tough.  Mix that into a normal workout challenge someone mentally as well as Kunze.  But he kept pushing, seeing the fruits of his labor come to fruition. 

Yes, the season got pushed back to March.  But it gives Kunze to pan out the edges to make sure when kick-off happens, he’s ready to go.

“All I know is that I’m going to be twice as strong and fast as I was last season,” Kunze said.  “I know it sounds cliché, but it really has helped me appreciate the time we have to play this game. If anything, I have more love for football than I did before.

“High School Football goes by so fast. I plan on mentoring these young guys and making sure they understand that this time is not to be taken for granted. Of course, I want to win games, but my main goal for this upcoming year is to leave the program with a better culture than there was when I got there.”

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