MARQUETTE - Less than 48 hours before the Northern Michigan University football team's home game against Grand Valley State on Oct. 13, Wildcat senior defensive tackle Zach Anderson stood on the Superior Dome sidelines during practice on crutches.
The day before during 11-on-11 drills, Anderson went down on the artificial turf and had to be helped off by teammates and trainers, unable to put any pressure on his left leg.
Anderson seemed doomed to join the hoard of other injured Wildcats like junior wide receiver Christian Marble King (knee), redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Morley (concussion) and true freshman running back Keon Collier (broken leg) - just to name a few - who were grouped together near the West end zone.
Northern?Michigan University senior defensive tackle Zach Anderson of Sault Ste.?Marie hits Wisconsin-La Crosse quarterback Andy Sires as he releases the ball on Thursday,?Sept. 6 inside the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Anderson, a Sault Ste. Marie native, refused to join them, however, sticking with the active players at midfield.
"He's in denial," one player joked.
Turns out, it was everyone else who was in denial.
"Coaches texted me and they said, 'It's going to be 2-3 weeks before you get back.' The trainers said that. The doctor said that," Anderson said.
"In my head, I'm saying, 'No, no, I'm coming back. I don't care. I can play through this. I can play through it.'
"Teammates were like, 'It's wishful thinking. He probably isn't coming back. 'I suited up on that Saturday and toughed it out for the team."
Anderson suffered a high ankle sprain on Oct. 10. While the 6-foot-4, 278-pound senior has been held out of practice, he has played in pain the previous two Saturdays, which included the 38-10 upset of GVSU and last-minute 38-31 loss at Wayne State.
He'll be back on the field again this Saturday when the Wildcats hit the road one last time in 2012 to play Northwood at noon in downstate Midland.
Anderson - whose younger brother Chad is a junior offensive lineman - is fourth on the team in tackles with 48, including 25 solo and eight for a loss. He has one interception as well, which came in Week 3 at Ohio Dominican.
"One of the things that's special about Zach, is as good as he is a football player, as flamboyant as he is as a kid, I think he's even better inside," NMU head coach Chris Ostrowsky said.
"He could have easily taken off and used the selfish card, but he's committed to this program. He has really been special and I think for the young guys who are in this program right now who are real good football players, they're going to remember 2-3 years from now what Zach did for us against Grand Valley."
Against the Lakers, Anderson had four tackles, two of which were solo.
He played a big role in the Wildcats' near comeback at Wayne State with a sack in the first quarter and a tipped pass in the fourth that resulted in an interception by redshirt freshman Matt Smith.
Anderson's ankle tried to take him out for the season again at Wayne State when it got rolled up on just before halftime.
He was helped off the field, only to return a few plays later.
"My foot went numb all the way to my shin," Anderson said. "I just had to take a couple plays off.
"It's an ongoing injury that I have to work with for the rest of the season. It would hurt me more if I couldn't play, but since I can play, and not practice, it almost works out better that way."
The Wildcats are 2-6 overall and 1-6 in the GLIAC with three weeks remaining in the regular season. Northwood, which was picked in the preseason to finish behind NMU, enters the weekend at 4-4 overall and 3-4 in the league following four-straight losses - all in North Division play.
Anderson said his senior year is "not what you wish for," but the one positive he'll point to from the 2012 campaign is the "monumental" win over Grand Valley State.
It was a feat that Anderson held inside didn't truly believe in until halftime. Though on the outside, he kept up the encouragement.
"Every year I've been here, Grand Valley has been the powerhouse, the team to beat, the unstoppable," Anderson said. "Every year we sit in the locker room and say, 'We're going to shock the world this year. We're going to shock the world.' And we never do.
"We try to put it in our heads that we can. To see our whole team rally like we did against Grand Valley, I'm going to remember that for the rest of my life. That was awesome."
Anderson, who led the Sault High Blue Devils to a 9-2 mark during his senior season in 2008, will graduate in December from Northern with a degree in criminal justice. But he's hoping to continue his football career after being contacted by NFL and CFL scouts for game film.
Ostrowsky said Anderson has the intangibles NFL teams look for, like the 4.6 second 40-yard dash time and ability to squat 600 pounds. But the four-time Sault High letter winner will also need a lot of luck to stand out in an overcrowded pool of NFL hopefuls.
"He's extraordinary fast for someone with his size and strength," Ostrowsky said. "He has it all. He has all the intangibles and he's shown to have a ton of character and courage by basically playing with one leg now.
"You have to be terribly lucky. There are so many players in America. There are great football players playing at Michigan and Michigan State that aren't going to get a look in the NFL. It's hard to put that kind of pressure, a tab on somebody."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 06-228-2500, ext. 252.