PULLMAN – It’s a big smile.
It starts small but as it grows, it spreads from one side of James Montgomery’s face to the other, making his eyes almost disappear.
And it comes out often.
Why shouldn’t it? James Montgomery is aware how lucky he is.
“I just wake up in the morning and I’m ready to go. I’m just happy I can do it,” says Montgomery, the Washington State University senior who is about to embark on a season he was sure would be spent limping around the sidelines, serving the role of water carrier not ball carrier.
But there’s a chance, a good chance, Montgomery will be the Cougars’ starting running back.
To understand how remarkable that is, we have to go back to September of last year.
Montgomery, a transfer from California, had already posted WSU’s first (and what proved to be its only) 100-yard rushing day of the season, going for 118 yards and a touchdown against Hawaii.
But a week later, at Martin Stadium, he was forced out of the Cougs’ 30-27 overtime win against SMU with a seemingly innocuous left calf bruise.
Overnight the injury worsened. The next day, suffering from acute compartment syndrome, in which blood flow to a muscle is restricted, resulting in tissue damage, Montgomery underwent emergency surgery.
Team surgeon Dr. Ed Tingstad took about a foot-long hot dog size chunk of muscle from Montgomery’s lower leg. The surgery saved the leg but seemingly cost Montgomery the rest of his football career.
“That’s the first thing you think about,” Montgomery says now. “You’re looking at all this stuff, like you’ll never get to suit up again, you’ll never get to be in the atmosphere ever again. You won’t be going in there to play. All that runs through your head.
“It was rough.”
He didn’t dwell on it for long, though.
“I was getting down a little bit,” he admits. “I was in (the hospital) for about six days. But everybody came by, president Floyd, all the coaches, pretty much everybody on the team, even faculty members came by. Everybody coming by to keep my spirits up.”
They succeeded. But football seemed to be an afterthought.
“(The doctors) thought with how big it was, how much muscle they took out, I would either get drop foot or I would have a little limp,” Montgomery says.
“It was just crazy,” he says, looking back at how quickly his leg responded. “We started just working all the muscles around my ankle, going all around my shin and it just came back.
“I was in my boot for my compartment, then in November I just took it off and started walking, and then I started running at the end of the season.”
With a chance to play again, Montgomery went ahead and fixed an old micro-fracture injury on his right knee in December.
“We decided to get my knee scoped, so that’s what I’ve been rehabbing this whole time,” he says. “It really hasn’t been the compartment leg at all.
“If it was just the compartment syndrome, I would have been out there for spring ball.”
As he prepares for practice to begin Sunday, Montgomery says he’s close to 100 percent. He’s been doing agility drills, the final step on his rehab trail, since, fittingly, Independence Day.
“I feel like my burst is pretty good,” he says. “I’ve been cutting pretty well. I’ll just give it a go.”
In the three games he gave it a go last season, Montgomery had 37 carries for 167 yards – more than any other returning running back – and caught seven passes for 62 yards. His 4.5 yards per carry average led the running backs.
This year he may lead in another category as well.
“Inspiration is the word that comes to my mind,” says coach Paul Wulff. “How could you not be inspired by what he has done and overcome? As coaches, we shake our heads when we talk about James.
“My wife (Sherry) and other people who were around the situation at the first, there response is just ‘wow, what a great story’ even to this point. His teammates feel the same way. The fact that he’s so liked, everyone’s rooting for him.”
And he’s rooting for them. Well, pushing them might be the more accurate term.
“We’ve got to be prepared, ready to go every day,” Montgomery says.
He should know. He has to come in at least 40 minutes early just to be warm enough to start a workout.
“That’s an everyday thing,” he says. “If I slip on that, my knee will be stiff and I’ll barely get through the workout.”
But he doesn’t mind. He just smiles and goes on.
“Now when I approach everything,” he says, “nothing is really that bad anymore.”