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‘A Coach’s Dream’ Keeps at Football Against All Odds

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As Pete Thistle stood on the curb of the North Allegheny High School parking lot propped up by aluminum crutches, he watched three buses filled by his teammates pull out, wondering whether they had taken his future with them.

“It was one of the more frustrating moments of my life,” Thistle said. “I still remember to this day watching them drive away.”

Just three days prior, the senior two-way lineman, one time state champion and team captain felt his world turn upside down and a part of his identity lost by a season-ending injury.

“It was a really weird sensation. I was walking down the stairs and I just felt something pop… It wasn’t painful and, this is weird to say, but it felt like a part of me was missing.”

Just days before his high school football team’s quarterfinal state playoff game, a portion of his bone labeled as the medial condyle had chipped off of his already damaged femur while walking down to his family’s dinner.

“I knew something was off and then I sat down at dinner and I felt a fragment in my knee just floating around,” Thistle said. “I heard someone say pass the mashed potatoes and then the next thing I remember saying was I need to go to the ER.”

His season, and possibly football career, was over.

“I was stunned,” Thistle’s mother, Karen, said about first hearing the doctors explain the severity of the injury. “I’m not usually an emotional person but I just began to weep silently in the doctor’s office and I couldn’t stop… I was just falling apart.”

Just days removed from contemplating multiple scholar offers to play football at Division II schools, Thistle would now return home to bed rest, alone with his thoughts, while his teammates traveled 87 miles east to play the a semifinal game in the Pennsylvania AAAA state playoffs, the state’s highest football classification.

The injury was in part caused by complications stemming from a childhood accident when he was nine in which he slipped while running and hit and cut his knee on the exhaust pipe of a car.

“On the way to the emergency room, Peter was screaming in agony and I was near fainting because of all the blood loss,” Karen Thistle said. “I don’t every want to see that far inside a person whom I love every again.”

At the time, the wound caused an almost lethal amount of blood loss before Thistle arrived at the emergency room, which he said somehow seems insignificant today given the injury’s other lasting complications.

“What happened, which I didn’t know at the time, was the femur had been partially cracked. So the doctors stitched me up, but they never took an x-ray of the area so there was no way to know the bone damage it had caused.”

Despite the unnoticed damage, Thistle continued to play an array sports throughout his youth while unaware of his physical vulnerability.

Thistle said he first experienced problems stemming from the initial injury in 2009 during his first season of varsity football while in the midst of August three-a-days.

“Sophomore year is when I first notice pain in my knee because varsity is obviously a step up in terms of workload,” Thistle said. “After 10 years of wear and tear of running around and lifting, the crack eventually traveled to the other side of the femur.”

After he initially persisted through the pain, his better reasoning took over and led Thistle to consider his future. He sought examination from the team doctor, who told him he could either continue to play with pain for the rest of the season or have surgery, which would not necessarily guarantee protection from future pain.

Faced with the decision to get back onto the field now or solidify his future, Thistle opted to have the surgery and look to his junior and senior seasons.

“I didn’t want to have to deal with this because the pain was a lot,” Thistle said. “After having a decent camp, I had to sit out the entire season, which was pretty discouraging, but I thought, well I have my junior and senior year left and I don’t want to have to deal down the road.”

Thistle said he used the experience of this setback as a motivational catalyst while preparing for his junior season and first taste of varsity football. With the thoughts of re-injury suppressed in his mind, Thistle won competitions in training camp to become both the starting center and defensive tackle.

“Coming into junior year I was like well this is kind of my chance to show what I can do and I got that opportunity fortunately.”

He would go on to win All-Conference honors on a team that won the state championship in Pennsylvania’s highest classification.

“Winning our district championship at Heinz Field and getting to play there for the first time was one of the memories I’ll never forget,” he said

True to his script, Thistle entered his senior season pain free and physically limitless. Given the success he experienced his junior season, he now set his sights on earning an athletic scholarship to play football at Division I program, something he said he wasn’t willing to compromise on.

“I always worked with the mindset that I would be playing at the Division I level because that was my goal.”

Three months into his senior season. Thistle had again been voted all-conference and hoisted his district’s championship trophy at Heinz Field for a second time.

Just weeks later and two wins away from a second consecutive state championship and 16-0 season, Thistle’s surgically rebuilt knee came up two weeks short of the finish line that his family, teammates and coaches had in mind.

“It was definitely toughest to break it to (head) coach (Art) Walker . . . I knew I was done with high school football and that phone call to him was just hard,” Thistle said. “I told him, ‘I don’t really know how to say this, so I’m just going to say it: Coach I’m done.’”

Upon hanging up the phone, Walker called a rare team meeting to relay the news of the injury to Thistle’s 80-plus teammates. At the time, Walker expressed his shock and said that his heart broke for Thistle because he knew he would have given anything to continue and finish the season with his teammates, in addition to his now uncertain college prospects.

One week later, Thistle laid helplessly in bed, knee elevated per doctor’s orders, while listening to his team’s game and contemplating his suddenly blurred future.

“I got past the ‘I’m not going to be able to play part’ pretty quickly because I was fortunate that my junior year we won states, so I had already at least experienced that,” Thistle said. “But it was still hard not being able to be out there and finish the season with all my long-time friends and teammates.”

The Tigers lost the quarterfinal game 23-20 and saw their season end that night.

“After that game we just all felt so bad for Pete,” said Thistle’s high school teammate Zach Harvey. “He was a key cog for us all that season and we wanted to win that game for him but unfortunately fell short.”

At the time, Thistle said he had offers from multiple Division II programs to play football on scholarship including Holy Cross and The Citadel.

“Once the injury happened that all got changed,” Thistle said.

Prospective programs no longer had interest in Thistle and he now had to sell himself as a recruit just weeks after breaking his femur and many months before he could compete again.

The tangible reward he had dreamt of since his youth was now seemingly unobtainable, and the thought of one day playing football again seemed further distant with each call for care to his mother while immobilized.

Through the emotional turmoil and shock that the news caused, Thistle’s mother said she tried to offer her son perspective to see past the injury.

“I told him, ‘you might be surprised. I might be surprised. But God is not surprised,” Karen Thistle said. “I told him that this is not a death sentence. Nothing has changed, just the way we thought it would happen has changed.”

Though the injury would not hinder Thistle from pursuing his four degree in exercise science and participating in other extra-curricular activities, such as his church’s youth group, he was not ready to let his dream of playing collegiate football die quite yet.

Amidst many closed doors and missed opportunities, Thistle received a helping hand from his high school football head coach Art Walker.

“Coach Walker knew coach (Nick) Rapone at the University of Delaware, who was the defensive coordinator at the time, and he called him up and explained my situation,” Thistle said. “Obviously they’re not going to give a kid they’ve never recruited before a scholarship, especially a kid with a broken femur. But they did say they looked at my film and told me I could walk-on and have a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on, meaning I’d have a chance to eventually earn a scholarship… the key word being earn.”

Although a long recovery process was not anything new to him, Thistle was now suddenly faced with the decision to give up the game that defined him for so long, or put his life on hold and forgo his first semester of college to train and pursue his far-off goal.

“I wasn’t cleared to workout out until August of that year, so it wouldn’t have made sense to waste a season of eligibility,” Thistle said.

After watching each one of his high school friends depart for college one by one, Thistle stayed behind holding onto hope that through an additional six months of rehab that his repaired knee could withstand years of football to come.

“I was sort of headed into uncharted waters,” Thistle said. “The research was very limited because not a lot of people have had the condition that I had and the surgery that he did,” Thistle said. “In one view it was kind of scary but in another view I was like ‘hey, this is going to be interesting and let’s see how far I can take it.”

Following six months of preparation, Thistle arrived at the Delaware campus in February of 2013 with little knowledge of what to expect but almost nothing to lose.

However just before arriving on campus, KC Keeler, the Delaware head football coach at the time, stepped down after the University did not renew his contract after falling short of expectations. Nearly his whole coaching staff, including Rapone, did not return to Delaware as well.

The coaching staff that once showed interest and promised him a spot opportunity to compete for a scholarship was now gone, which Thistle said caused a good deal of uncertainty.

With his football prospects in peril and nothing to lose, Thistle took a proactive approach in gaining the attention of a new coaching staff.

“I remember when I first got here I spent the first two weeks trying to get in Coach Brock’s office, just trying to convince him like ‘Hey, I came here to play football.’”

“I had to get his blessing to walk on…. I just wanted him to notice him that I wasn’t going to leave until I got the job.”

After gaining Brock’s blessing to participate in the team’s off-season workouts and spring practices, seemingly the only hurdle he had yet to clear was his own psychological assurance of his health after not playing football in nearly 18 months, which he said paled in comparison to the physical challenges he initially faced at the collegiate level.

“The first couple of months I wanted to quit every day,” Thistle said. “It’s just such a step up in terms of overall practice workload and everyone at this level was the best player and the biggest, strongest and fastest guy on their high school team so the speed and physicality of the game is hard to adjust to at first.”

Now in his redshirt sophomore season, though he has yet to earn a scholarship, Thistle is currently the Blue Hens’ backup center and has seen playing time after the end of blowout games this past season.

Thistle said he has only missed one practice in his first two years playing at Delaware due to a migraine and has experienced no further setbacks or complications from his prior injuries.

“I know I’m not as good as I would have been because I was on bed rest for six months but I’ve just tried to focus on becoming the best player I can be given the circumstances and obstacles I’ve faced,” Thistle said.

Though he said the goal of earning an athletic scholarship is still in his sights, he is solely focused on making incremental improvements, which is something his position coach said he has already excelled at.

“Pete is a coach’s dream. He’s a tough, high-character, hard-working faith-based guy who listens well and has done everything we’ve asked of him up until this point,” said Delaware offensive line coach Sean Devine.

In addition to completing his bachelor’s degree in exercise science, Thistle said he is truly taking his football career and pursuit of a scholarship one day at a time, as he is all too aware of the fragility of his opportunity.

“I love the sport, that’s why I kept with it.  I really want to see how far I can take it with my situation.”

Matt Zabierek is a University of Connecticut journalism student.