REARDAN – The heart is a muscle.
In the sporting world, though, it’s been transformed into a magical body part separating winners and losers.
Coaches will be quick to say they didn’t play “with heart” if they perform below expectations. Players celebrating a win usually say they had “more heart” than the opponent.
From a physical level, attributing athletic success to something solely responsible for the transfer of blood and oxygen through the body can be a little ridiculous.
Then you meet Reardan’s Adam Rohner, and you can’t help but wonder.
Rohner was born with severe clubfoot in both of his feet, and as a result, his lower legs never really developed.
He has small calf muscles within his spindly lower legs. His ankles are fused together, so essentially from just below his knees to his feet is a single bone.
There is no flexibility in the ankles, and when he’s not in cleats, he almost walks on the sides of his feet.
On Friday nights, he starts at center and defensive tackle for the Indians, the state’s fourth-ranked B-11 team.
“It doesn’t really bother me much,” Rohner said. “You can’t really do anything about it.”
As an infant, he went to the doctor on a weekly basis and had his feet put in casts. When he was a year old, he underwent surgery to straighten his feet, but it only really improved the right foot.
Even then, it became apparent that this would not limit him.
“He was real resilient,” said Leo Rohner, his father. “He was a year old with a cast on both feet and he used to pull himself up and walk back and forth on the couch. Then, once he got out of the casts and learned to walk, he didn’t walk anymore. Everywhere he went, he ran.”
Adam looked up to his older brother, also named Leo, who played middle linebacker for the Indians in the late ‘90s.
So, when junior high rolled around, Adam decided he would play, too.
“I just wanted to come out and smack somebody in the mouth,” Rohner said. “In junior high, I thought I was hot stuff and come out there and find I’m some puny, measly little kid who wasn’t fast enough.”
His parents were understandably concerned.
“We told him you have to realize that your feet aren’t normal. We just didn’t want to see him get hurt,” Leo Rohner said. “As far as having any discussion, we never really did because he was bound and determined.
“He was going to play football, and that was that.”
By last year, he had improved to the point where he started on the defensive line for Reardan, which made the State B-11 quarterfinals.
This summer, he worked hard enough to impress Reardan head coach Eric Nikkola into naming him a two-way starter and co-captain. He wears No. 64, same as his older brother.
“He’s dedicated himself to football and he’s been in the weight room more than anyone else in our program,” Nikkola said.
Nikkola had a seven-on-seven practice this summer, which includes backs, receivers, linebackers and defensive backs in order to improve the passing game. Linemen are exempt.
Despite that, Rohner showed up at the high school – and began running.
“So I said, ‘What the hell? You’re running? That’s probably the worst thing you could do,’ ” Nikkola said. “And he’s doing it right there. That told me, he’s one of my captains.”
Being a captain means a lot to Rohner, who understands the importance of the position.
“You just try to step out there and be a captain and a leader,” Rohner said. “You want to look good for those young guys, because you want them to have the same intensity and fire as you do.”
This leaves one of the most important questions unanswered. How exactly does Rohner play on the line? Playing in the trenches requires three things: balance, footwork and lower-body strength. These are not qualities with which Rohner was blessed.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know how he does it,” Nikkola said. “But he has earned those spots and you can’t take them away.”
They don’t hide Rohner, nor is he a liability. He had 1 1/2 sacks two weeks ago against Odessa and a tackle for a loss in the Indians’ rivalry game with Davenport.
On offense, he will help the guard on a defensive tackle, then get a block on the linebacker 4 yards downfield to create a cutback lane.
In his work in the weight room, he’s one of the strongest Indians, benching more than 300 pounds with a 6-foot, 170-pound frame. He uses his upper body when he can to hold blocks and beat offensive linemen.
This does not mean the pain has gone away. He takes pain medication and his dad said there are times in the morning where it looks like he can barely walk. He spends a lot of time in quarterback Eric Everett’s hot tub, as the two are neighbors and best friends.
But, Rohner said, all that disappears on Friday.
“I get this mentality on game days,” Rohner said. “The day before, I’m hurting and sitting out, but when game day comes around it just all flushes out of my mind. I’m just like, ‘Let’s go.’ It’s just adrenaline.”
In an earlier game this season, an opponent made fun of his legs while the 4-1 Indians were in the middle of blowing them out.
“If I would have heard that, I would have got a 15-yard penalty and laid that kid out,” receiver Brad Alberts said. “He didn’t tell us about it until after the game.”
“You just man up and walk away,” Rohner said. “Point at the scoreboard.”
After this year is over, he may undergo more surgery, as the doctors advised him to wait until he finished growing before any additional work was done.
There’s some work left to do on the football field. Reardan hopes to improve on last year’s finish and figures to contend for the school’s fourth state championship.
Wherever they go, they’ll get there with a lineman who doesn’t look like everyone else. If you ask his teammates, though, he’s got something nobody else does.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Everett says. “I don’t know what it is.
“He’s got something inside him that’s just keeping him going.”