After a potentially paralyzing injury last fall, Sophomore Andrew Valen has found another way to contribute
“When one door closes, another one opens.” This is the statement Gustavus Adolphus College student football coach Andrew Valen keeps in mind when he thinks about the events in his life this past year.
On Sept. 10, 2007, Valen played in what was his last game of football vs. Bethel University in Gustavus’ brand new stadium. Valen dropped back to throw a pass but decided to run instead. During this run, he had a helmet-to-helmet collision with a Bethel opponent—a typical incident in football—but an incident nonetheless that precluded drastic results.
Valen, recalling the hit, said, “I ended up hitting the guy and getting back up. It was actually kind of fun at that point; I thought it was, at least. Then I got up, kept playing, played six more plays and realized my neck was hurting a little bit.”
The little bit of hurting in Valen’s neck ended up being a tremendous amount of pain the morning after the game. About a week and a half later, and after taking some precautionary medical steps, Andrew learned that he suffered from two fractured vertebrae. The MRI showed the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck were completely cracked.
Doctors urged Valen to immediately have surgery done following the results of the MRI. He had cervical fusion performed on his neck, which meant that certain sections of his spine was fused together. Part of the procedure included taking bone from his hip and putting it into place in his neck.
Because the injury was so serious, doctors advised Valen not to play contact sports, meaning he would never play football again. After hearing the disappointing news from the doctor, Valen admitted, “I was in shock at first, definitely. It was something I never thought I’d hear. I thought the last time I’d play football was going to be my senior year, whenever that time is. I’d never had a problem with injuries, never missed practice and this was just something I never saw coming.”
As heartbreaking and even angering as it was for Valen to hear he wouldn’t be able to participate in football, he came to realize how lucky he actually was. Doctors told Valen that if his vertebrate had shifted only two millimeters more, he would have been paralyzed for the rest of his life.
Following the news and trauma of surgery, Valen bounced right back. Instead of staying home for four weeks, which was typical for that type of surgery, he came back to Gustavus after one week of being home. Being back into the routine of school helped him keep his mind off things, and he was surrounded by people who cared about him.
Looking back on the experience, Valen believes that it was the support of family and friends that helped him to get through surgery and continue on at Gustavus.
“The one reason I wanted to leave Gustavus was because I didn’t think I would be able to be around football anymore, but the coaching staff here was incredible helping me get back into doing things with the team.”
Following his surgery, the Gustavus coaching staff immediately took Valen in and set him up as a contributing student coach. Head Coach Jay Schoenebeck credited Valen for handling such a tough situation so well and believes the sophomore has shown great leadership and knowledge as a coach on the team. “We wanted [Andrew] to stay involved with the team because he is a man of high integrity and character, which is the type of person that we need in our program,” Schoenebeck said.
Today, Valen is on the sidelines coaching the Golden Gustie offense. He is now in his second year as a student coach and hopes to coach throughout his four years here at Gustavus.
Valen admitted he never thought that he would get into coaching but realized how much he wanted to stay involved with the sport. He came to view coaching as another opportunity to be a role model and learn another aspect of the game.
“It’s a lot of fun to just be on the other side of things. Being a player for so long and now being a coach makes it interesting to see how much work actually goes into it behind the scenes,” said Valen.
Early this September, the Gustavus JV football team traveled to Bethel for their first game of the season. Valen was in tow, carrying out his duty in calling offensive plays during the JV match-up.
Emotions have come full circle for Valen, as he realized from the sidelines that it was only a year ago that he was playing out on the field against the exact same Bethel opponent. “I watched the [Bethel] kid that I hit play. He’s fine and I’m happy for him. But it’s definitely weird that it was only a year ago that I was in pads playing, and now I’m calling plays for JV. It was special being involved with that game, but a little frustrating, too, I think,” he said.
Valen’s frustration in not being able to play has been countered by how rewarding it is for him to be a coach. He is able to contribute to the improvement of his friends in the game he is so passionate about.
His teammates enjoy having him out on the field, too. He’s positive and also inspiring for the Gustie men that continue to have the opportunity to suit up and play. “It means a lot for us to have him out there. We wear the AV sticker on the back of our helmets to remind us that any play could be our last,” said Junior receiver Ben Brandt.
Valen believes he has learned a lot from his experience. “This happened for a reason, and there is something better to come. I’ve learned to have confidence and willpower and not to let s
something take you down,” he said.
Valen’s positive attitude with regard to tackling life’s challenges is definitely inspirational. You can’t help but take notice of when you see him roaming the Gustavus campus. Through all he’s dealt with, Andrew Valen is still a smiling kid with the capacity to open many, many doors in his future.