Man in the middle
After missing last season with an injury, Saager ready to be big part of Mavericks' defense
Every so often, Tom Saager will sneak in an extra rep.
It’s not that he feels he needs to make up for lost time, but when you’re leaning on crutches or a wheeled scooter for an entire season and endure two surgeries, you don’t want to miss a play when that blasted boot is finally tossed aside.
“They’re limiting my reps, but they’ve been good to me, keeping me at bay so I’m not constantly sore,” the Colorado Mesa junior middle linebacker said. “But it’s hard for me to take plays off and not go. I’ve been going a little extra, sneaking in when I can.”
The right foot that was so badly injured on Aug. 18, 2016, is strong again, and so is Saager, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs a solid 250 pounds, up 20 pounds from when he suited up for the Mavericks in 2015. He’ll never forget that moment.
“It was the last play of practice, a year ago on the 18th, almost a complete year,” he said 363 days after the premature end to what should have been his junior season. “I sat on it, my heel basically touched my toe, just folded it in half.
“I was pressing an O-lineman and got hit in the hip and kind of crumbled, sat on it and it gave way.”
He was diagnosed with a Lisfranc fracture dislocation, injuring the ligament that connects the bones of the midfoot and forefoot. He also broke three toes.
“It was all jumbled up for awhile,” Saager said.
Six screws helped reconstruct his foot, but it’s an injury that takes 6-12 months to heal. He had a cast on his right foot after surgery, eventually going to a boot, but couldn’t put weight on it for months.
That meant not only could he not play football or even walk to class, but he couldn’t work out other than do upper-body weights.
So that’s what Saager did, hopping from station to station in the weight room, with a teammate moving a bench for him. His shoulders, already broad, got bigger, as did his chest and biceps. He couldn’t do much for his right leg, which was weakened by inactivity, resting on a wheeled scooter that at least got him off crutches.
“I was working upper body that whole time I couldn’t do anything, focusing on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t,” Saager said.
That mentality helped him get through the Mavericks’ RMAC championship season from the sideline. The season after leading CMU with 114 tackles, Saager helped coach the young linebackers during practices and games, and coach Russ Martin put him on the travel squad to keep him involved.
“I’ve never been hurt, so I didn’t know how to carry myself, what to do,” he said of his role on the team. “I tried to be there for as many people as I could, but definitely felt out of it. It was a dark year, really. It was depressing. Hard, really hard.”
He kept telling himself he’d be back, despite the odds. His surgeon, Dr. Chris Copeland, told him the odds were about 50-50 to successfully play after a Lisfranc injury.
“I told him, ‘Well, we’re going to make it 51 percent.’ I knew I was coming back, there was no way I was not coming back,” Saager said. “I just kept looking forward to the next year and kept trying to encourage my team, but it was definitely outside looking in.”
By watching from the sideline, Saager learned every nuance of the defense, not just the middle linebacker position. He took a step back and looked at the defense more as a coach. It’s already made a difference, he said, now that he’s back on the field, quickly recognizing when he needs to check out of one call to another.
All the while he was trying to encourage his teammates, they were trying to keep his spirits up.
“I just kept saying, ‘God’s got a plan. Everything happens for a reason and I’ll understand someday,’ but in the moment ... it’s definitely tough,” he said. “It made me a stronger person, I believe, more patient, for sure.”
More surgery in the spring removed the screws from his foot, and after another stint in the boot — at least he could walk — he was released to start rehabilitation.
He spent the summer in Grand Junction, going to rehab at least three times a week, running in the swimming pool, and working to regain his lower-body strength.
“I could do some cutting and running; it felt great to run again,” he said. “Rehab was so crucial. Those little muscles you don’t realize, they’re all stabilizing everything. I had a great rehab.”
Once he could get in the weight room and work his entire body, the strength came back. He can squat 385 pounds, only 20 pounds off his max from before the injury. He’s confident he’ll reach, even pass, that this season, which is saying something when you consider where he started.
“At the beginning of the summer I was only doing 135, just doing that for reps, and it was tough,” he said with a chuckle. “That used to be nothing. I’ve got all that back now, and all my explosion back.”
The added weight and upper-body strength is helping him push against bigger offensive linemen, and although the foot gets sore, he’s confident it’s strong. With the added depth in the linebacking corps developed last season, Saager knows even though he wants to be in on every play, he doesn’t have to be on the field all the time. He trusts the next guy can get the job done.
He also trusts that the Mavericks will again get the job done on the field, add another RMAC title and advance deep into the playoffs. They didn’t just rest on their 2016 tri-championship, something that bothers the players, since they beat both teams, Colorado Mines and CSU-Pueblo, that received RMAC championship shirts, plaques and banners, as they did.
That drove the Mavericks in the offseason and through spring and fall camp.
“Coach keeps saying, good is the enemy of great,” Saager said. “If we think we’re good, we’re not good enough. We can always be better, work to get better, don’t be satisfied with being good enough, because it’s not. If you want to be great, you have to put in that extra work.
“Tying with Pueblo and Mines kind of put a chip on our shoulder. We beat both of those teams and we felt we should have been outright winners, but it is what it is. Our motto this year is ‘Leave no doubt,’ and we are going to leave no doubt and be on top. That’s another driving factor.”
Saager is listed as a junior on the roster, but he came in with this year’s large senior class.
He can apply for a medical hardship season, giving him another year to play in 2018. Right now, he’s not thinking ahead, nor is he distracted by NFL scouts taking a look at his frame, mobility and athleticism.
Martin believes Saager can play at the next level, especially if he has two more healthy, successful seasons.
“Yeah ... yeah,” Saager said when asked about playing beyond college. “This is the only thing that matters, Game 1 is the only thing that matters and then we get to the next week, that’s the only thing that matters. I’m just taking it day by day.
“I learned a lot from the injury. You can’t look at the big picture, it’ll just stress people out and scare them. You have to take it one day at a time, do your best each day, this game, and carry on to the next week.”