WORDEN — Anticipation pulsed through the gymnasium at Huntley Project.
Koni Dole waited anxiously matside. It was Jan. 17, his second wrestling match, and his first in front of the Huntley Project Red Devils home crowd since losing his leg.
While the 16-year-old sophomore sat with a group of his teammates on the glossy gymnasium floor, a young boy walked up and extended his arm toward him for a fist bump. He asked Dole how he would wrestle with just one leg.
Dole lifted himself up with his sturdy arms and folded himself into a wrestling stance that kept him low to the ground, showing the boy he would have to wrestle by balancing on the knee of his amputated leg with his other leg extended.
Soon after, his best friend, 15-year-old Tanner Miller, lifted Dole onto his back and carried him to the team’s huddle before the second-round match began. At 169 pounds, Dole isn’t exactly a light load.
“He is still probably the strongest kid in our school,” Miller said.
Even so, success in wrestling wouldn’t be immediate. He lost his first match weeks before despite a commanding lead in the first three periods. Wrestling with only one leg creates a list of challenges, not the least of which is the increased amount of energy it requires to wrestle someone with two legs.
But for Dole, much more rode on this match as the enthusiasm of the crowd saturated the gym.
He secured his wrestling headgear around his ears and checked in at the scorer's table.
When his match was called, Dole confidently hopped across the mat and faced his opponent, Ben Grass, a wrestler from Shepherd High School, Huntley Project's rival.
Dole was rushed to Billings Clinic on Oct. 19 after he suffered a compound fracture in his lower right leg during the final quarter of Huntley Project's last football game of the season against Shepherd.
“I just kept asking the doctors how long it would take before I could be back on the field,” Dole said.
He underwent the first of six surgeries the following morning. Dole said the surgeon left him with the impression that everything was going to be OK and that he would be well on his way to recovery within days.
Five days after the injury, Dole was in and out of sleep. When he was awake, he was in excruciating pain.
“I kept having dreams that I would wake up without a leg, even though the possibility of amputation hadn’t even been brought up yet,” Dole said.
Then infection set in. His temperature reached 105 degrees, and the pain was unbearable. Surgeons operated again, cutting open both sides of his leg to reduce the pressure caused by swelling.
“All the signs were there that something wasn’t right,” Dole said. “And then I saw the doctors pull my parents aside into a room. I could see it in their faces that something was wrong.”
As Dole talked about that morning, he grew silent and fought back tears.
“I had never seen my dad cry until that day,” he said.
Surgeons told Nancy and Andy Dole that the trauma to their son’s leg had developed into compartment syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition in which pressure builds from swelling, depriving tissue and muscle of the blood flow that carries essential oxygen and nutrients.
Despite six surgeries, doctors couldn’t save the leg. The best option, they said, was amputation if he ever wanted to play sports again.
Amid the hardest day of his life, a seemingly incomprehensible decision had to be made.
“I told them to take it,” Dole said. “I couldn’t be left with the option to never play again.”
'Only the beginning'
Not a day passes without Dole thinking about how different his life would be if he had his right leg. He would be an ordinary student-athlete, and his dream of playing college football would be uninterrupted.
“This was the last thing I ever expected to happen,” Dole said of the amputation seven inches below his knee.
But when Dole thinks about the setbacks he faces each day, he reminds himself of the support of his community — the hospital visits from strangers who are also amputees and a benefit organized by community members that raised $50,000 to help pay for an athletic prosthetic leg that wasn’t covered by health insurance.
Phone calls and condolence letters poured in as he lay in the hospital. In a matter of 24 hours, a Facebook profile page created for the Koni Dole Benefit received more than 1,000 likes and was filled with hundreds of messages of support. One girl quoted Martin Luther King Jr. to remind Dole that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
“People have put a lot of faith in me,” Dole said. “That’s what keeps me going. That, my family and God.”
Dole’s goal to be more than just a supporter on the sideline next football season is driven by the desire to play alongside his little brother, Kai, who will be a freshman.
His goal, supported by his family, coaches, doctors and prosthetist, is to get back to how he lived before the amputation. And he is well on his way.
“I am learning to accept the fact that I only have one leg,” he said. “This isn’t the end for me. It’s only the beginning.”
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Back at it
The day after he was released from the hospital, Dole met with his strength and development coach, Adam Husk, in the school’s weight room. He was in a hurry to get back to his regular routine — lifting weights every day before and after school, and three times a week during Husk’s extracurricular weight-lifting class.
And although Dole often feels discouraged and impatient with the pace of his recovery, he is far ahead of the curve.
Dole’s prosthetist, Jay Murray of Treasure State Orthotics and Prosthetics, said that in the time it takes most amputees to learn to walk proficiently, Dole is learning to run.
Murray said typically after a leg amputation, it takes at least eight weeks to begin learning to walk using a prosthesis. For Dole, it was three weeks.
“He is progressing at an exponential rate,” Murray said. “He pushes us farther than most — he reaches a maximum, and then wants more.”
During a late January weight-conditioning session with Husk, Dole lifted a 205-pound power cling — a personal best since receiving his prosthetic leg. His all-time best of 280 pounds was set last summer and is the record for the power cling in the middleweight class at Huntley Project.
But during his two-week stay at the hospital, Dole lost about 30 pounds off his 190-pound, muscular frame.
And although Dole has gained back much of the weight, in recent weeks he has been cutting weight to reach a lower weight class for wrestling.
“I told myself last year that I was going to wrestle my sophomore year,” Dole said. “I wasn’t about to go back on that decision.”
Wrestling coach Tim Kaczmarck said Dole knows he has only two options.
“He could sit around feeling sorry for himself, or he can make the best of what he’s been dealt,” Kaczmarck said. “It’s been the latter. And it’s been inspirational seeing him choose every day to be better than he was the day before.”
A new reality
Learning to live with one leg at the age of 16 is no small task.
There have been many nights when Dole wakes up and he forgets his leg is gone, having to face his new reality all over again.
But, the first week was the hardest.
“I felt discouraged when I though about how much work I put in before this happened,” he said, listing everything he had done to prepare for his junior year — a year that would be crucial in determining where he would play college football. “It was hard to make myself get out of bed every morning to work out. I kept asking if there was even a point to any of it anymore.”
Just when Dole would reach a breaking point, Husk would tell him, “If you want to give up, there’s the door.” Dole said it was the tough love he needed to keep coming back.
He said many of his friends have struggled to find the right words.
“Most don’t know what to say, probably because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing,” Dole said.
But they expressed their sentiment at the football team’s awards ceremony in January when he was voted most inspirational by his teammates.
The Montana State University Bobcats and the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears football teams signed team jerseys with Dole’s name printed on the back and presented them to him during home games.
Husk, who is also Rocky’s defensive line coach, signed the back of the jersey: "Koni, I’ll always have your back.”
Dole’s grandmother, who lives next door, said her grandson’s resilience and determination have made a huge impact on the community.
“He has his challenging moments, but he always seems to come up to the top,” she said, “And he brings others up right along with him.”
As Dole entered the wrestling match, the Red Devils crowd cheered. But they weren’t alone — the visiting teams appeared to share the intense emotion.
Dole knelt onto the mat and shook out his arms. He leaned into his opponent and shook Grass’ hand. As soon as the referee blew the whistle, Dole shot in for a single-leg take down, quickly pulling his opponent down to his level, as he gained control on top.
Grass’ coaches yelled out to him, “Get on your feet.” Grass escaped, putting the wrestlers back in neutral.
While wrestlers use their legs to make escapes and lock in holds, Dole has to rely on his upper-body strength. Dole lunged into his opponent again, locked him in a half nelson, pinning Grass in a minute and 22 seconds during the first period.
Dole stood up, and the referee raised his arm. The crowd burst into a standing ovation.
“That is why you don’t quit — that right there,” Husk shouted to Dole.
“I’d say in anybody’s book, that went pretty well,” Husk said. “Koni defines our school motto, which is to dream, believe and to achieve.”