When Spartan senior Luke Wendorf sacked Central quarterback Johnny Davis late in the fourth quarter to seal Sparta’s 17-12 victory over the Red Raiders in late September, it was a sure sign the comeback was complete.
Not Sparta’s comeback, but that of Wendorf, who two years earlier suffered a devastating knee injury on that very same field – against that very same team.
“There were 20 seconds left in the half – I was trying to run out of bounds to stop the clock,” said Wendorf, recalling the play that left his left knee in tatters.
Jump ahead more that two years, and Wendorf – told by many after the 2016 injury that he may never walk the same again, much less play football – is grinding out his best game as a Spartan, rushing for 135 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries in last week’s 33-14 victory over New Richmond in the second round of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 3 football playoffs.
Add to that eight tackles – four solo – from his outside linebacker post, and that’s what’s called a breakout performance on both sides of the football.
It’s hard for even Wendorf to imagine how far he’s come after what looked to be a career-ending injury in 2016.
He tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus, and suffered major nerve damage to his left leg.
To this day, Wendorf is unable to pick up his left foot.
While many suggested Wendorf should forget about playing football, he had a different plan.
“It all started with the people around me - my parents for sure – and (Sparta trainer) Laura (Hudson) worked with me every day,” he offered. (Gundersen Lutheran physical therapist) Dave Carney was hard on me – really hard on me – but he’s been great.”
Of course, all that came after Dr. Goeffrey Baer – the Wisconsin Badgers surgeon – reconstructed Wendorf’s left knee.
“It’s perseverance, I guess. Self-determination and a love for the game,” said Wendorf of hard work he put in to get back on the field.
“At my first appointment, two days after the injury, I asked when I was going to be able to get back on the field,” he said. “I went to 10 different specialists, and most said they didn’t think football would be a god idea.”
But hard work matters, and Wendorf put in the time and effort to rehab the knee over the next year.
It paid off, too, and Wendorf returned to the gridiron just over a year after the injury in a MVC game against Holmen last season.
“I would have played the first game last year if they would have let me. I told them I was ready, but they had to make sure I was ready,” he said.
“I think of that first play last year, and I was pretty nervous, but them my instincts kicked in,” Wendorf continued. “Now, it’s like the knee doesn’t even bother me. I don’t really think about it now. Sometimes I’m more confident in it than the other knee.”
Wendorf’s head coach, Adam Dow, an assistant under John Blaha when Wendorf injured the knee back in 2016, marvels at the recovery.
“I think it’s a testament to the kind of quality kid that Luke is – the time he put in, the struggles,” he said.
“Ultimately, it was the confidence he has in himself. It takes a lot to say, ‘I’m going to do this’,” continued Dow. “When I think of Luke, the best symbol for is character and work ethic. It was good for him to go out there last season and take a few hits.”
To get back on the field is one thing, to get back on the field and to play at the level Wendorf is playing at right now is something completely different.
Wendorf plays with almost a reckless abandon – especially on the defensive side of the ball – flying around the field making tackles left and right.
“He’s been monumental when it comes to our defense. His strength and confidence - I don’t know if we’d have the defense we do right now without him,” said Dow.
“He’s playing at a college prospect level,” he continued. “Had he had a junior season, he might be getting looks (from college scouts) right now – he still may. The type of football he’s playing right now - he’s playing like a college prospect.”
Dow said Wendorf’s battle back to the gridiron has been an inspiration to his teammates and to the coaching staff as well.
“When you get into a situation where you have adversity, to have a guy in the huddle who has fought through what he’s fought through, you don’t really question a lot,” he offered. “That’s been the season for this team – fighting through adversity, and ultimately getting what you deserve. Luke’s getting what he deserves. He’s playing both ways and he’s playing to get into a state semifinal game.”
Wendorf is comfortable with the role of leader on the team, and he’s glad he can serve as an inspiration to his teammates.
“It’s an unspoken type of inspiration. I think everyone on the team respects how hard I worked to get back,” he said. “They went through it with me, and they didn’t lose faith anymore than I did that I would play again.”
As for the improbable post-season that saw Sparta turn a 1-4 start into a playoff berth and a trip to the third round, Wendorf said it’s been a blast.
“It’s surreal. It’s crazy,” he said.
“It’s hard to think back to the beginning of the year and believe where we are now,” continued Wendorf. “I’ll never forget it, that’s for sure. Even just making it to the playoffs with the season we had is unbelievable. It’s something that, hopefully, carriers over to next year. Hopefully we can set a new standard for Sparta football.”
Wendorf and the Spartan gridders will take the field again tonight (Friday), when they travel to Rice Lake for a 7 p.m. Division 3 quarterfinal match-up with the defending state champion warriors.