Even while wearing the halo brace that was attached to his skull following surgery to repair a bulging disc in his neck, Matt Anderson never considered the real possibility that his college football career might be over.
“I’ve never been able to imagine myself not playing football,” said Anderson, a 6-foot-2, 233-pound senior, who will start at weakside linebacker for North Dakota State on Saturday when the unseeded Bison (9-4) face No. 1-ranked and fifth-seeded Eastern Washington (10-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Roos Field in the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“I just looked at the surgery as something I needed to take care of so I could get back to playing like I had in the past.”
In retrospect, Anderson might have been a bit overly optimistic about his comeback chances – especially considering what doctors discovered once they cut into the back of his neck.
Along with a bulging disc, Anderson had a pair of loose vertebrae and some major cartilage damage. So doctors replaced the disc with a piece of bone from a cadaver and held it in place with a metal plate bolted onto the ends of the two loose vertebrae.
Anderson still isn’t certain what caused all the damage, which he decided to have repaired four games into the 2009 season.
“I remember taking a pretty good hit my freshman year, and it never felt the same after that,” he said. “I had some trouble with it from then on, but nothing major.”
Until last fall, that is, when the pain became excruciating with each hit and severely limited his effectiveness.
“Sometimes, it would take my breath away,” Anderson said. “And then I couldn’t do anything without having to go out for a few plays until the pain went away.”
It reached a point at which he felt he was no longer helping his team, so he opted for surgery, even though his doctors told him there was a chance he might never play football again.
“It was a chance I was willing to take, because I’d rather not play at all than keep playing the way I was,” Anderson said.
Following his operation, Anderson was fitted with a halo brace and restricted for several months from lifting any more than 5 pounds.
“I couldn’t even carry my backpack to class,” he said.
Still, he was determined to get back on the football field. And to that end, he underwent an extensive rehabilitation program that enabled him to take part of some non-contact drills last spring and engage in full practices this fall.
Anderson has gone on to become a major contributor to NDSU’s defensive efforts again, having been involved in 53 tackles – including five for losses – this fall, while intercepting three passes and breaking up eight others.
“I know a lot of people questioned why I would want to come back, but I love playing football, and it’s been worth every minute of that long rehab process, especially considering the success we’ve had,” Anderson said.
“I can’t think of a better way for all this to be ending.”