MARSHALL, MINN. - Football success has been elusive for Southwest Minnesota State since fielding its first team in 1968. It didn't get easier in 2008, when the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference absorbed Augustana, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State Mankato after the breakup of the North Central Conference.
The SMSU Mustangs were 5-6 overall and 4-6 in the Northern Sun in 2009. They also played powerful Minnesota Duluth within a touchdown, lost in a 42-32 shootout with Mankato and blew out Northern State and MSU Moorhead to finish the season.
There was hope. There was enthusiasm for the offseason workouts. And then on Feb. 12, reserve lineman Ben Bundy collapsed during a team warmup. The cause was an aneurysm. The 20-year-old died five days later.
On Feb. 26, a different kind of shock was delivered to this football team: Eric Eidsness, the Mustangs' head coach for six seasons, resigned to become the quarterbacks coach at South Dakota State.
"That came out of nowhere,'' said Shane LaDage, a senior tight end from Parker, Colo.
Offensive coordinator Cory Sauter, a former Gophers and NFL quarterback, was named interim coach -- and then a month later was given the job.
The shocks were not over for the Mustangs. In May, LaDage was in Indianapolis for an NCAA gathering of athletes. Kasey Uran, a Southwest Minnesota State volleyball player, also was there.
Uran's boyfriend was Derek Klinkner, a sophomore linebacker described as "by far our best defensive player'' both by Mustangs teammates and coaches.
"Kasey got a message that Derek had been hurt in an accident at the farm,'' LaDage said. "I made some calls, and people were saying that they heard it was bad.''
School had ended the first week of May at SMSU. Klinkner was home at the farm outside Artesian, S.D., helping his father, Don, with a major project.
"We had a new well drilled,'' Derek said. "We decided it would be easier to move the water tank over there, rather than run a pipe to the tank at the old well.''
The water tank was basically an old, huge tire from which the feed cattle would drink. The weight was estimated at 3,000 pounds.
"We had 3 inches of rain that week, so the ground was soft,'' Klinkner said. "I was under the tire, trying to hook up the pipe, when the tank shifted in the mud and the tire came down on me. I was kneeling and, next thing, I was pushed onto my rear end into the mud.''
Don Klinkner was coming back from a heart attack and surgery in which he was given three stents.
"Because of that, my dad couldn't just pull me out from under the tire,'' Derek said. "It took some time.''
Once he was out of the mud and from under the tire, Derek was placed in an ambulance and raced to a hospital in Mitchell, S.D.
"The roads around the farm aren't exactly paved highways,'' Klinkner said. "Every time we hit a bump on the back roads -- which was all the time -- I was ready to scream.''
The injury turned out to be a dislocation of the spine, with the T-12 vertebra moved away from the L-1. He was taken to Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., and underwent complicated surgery to put the T-12 back where it belonged, with rods to keep it in place.
Sauter went to Sioux Falls and was told Klinkner's situation was such he was allowed no visitors other than family. Then, Derek found out his coach was outside and Sauter was admitted.
"A doctor had just left the room,'' Sauter said. "Derek was crying. He said, 'I'm sorry, Coach. I'm not going to be able to play. I'm sorry to let you down, to let the team down.' That's the type of young man he is -- worried about his teammates and coaches more than himself.''
The news that Klinkner received from the doctor that day went beyond being told he wouldn't play football again.
"I was told I probably wasn't going to walk again,'' he said.
• • •
This was a glorious late afternoon on the Minnesota prairie. The Mustangs were holding a pre-practice meeting in rooms of the concourse of the Regional Event Center. This excellent facility opened in 2008 as the football home for the Mustangs, the Marshall High Tigers, soccer games and other gatherings.
Klinkner was on the sideline in his wheelchair. He was fresh from an hour of therapy and ready to monitor his teammates in practice -- as he done on a regular basis since returning to campus.
Originally, he had little feeling from his midsection. He started to regain feeling in his legs during his month in the hospital. His legs gained strength during rehab this summer in Mitchell.
"I'm going to walk again,'' Klinkner said. "Actually, I'm walking some with hand crutches, although I'm not good enough yet to use them outside of therapy. The problem I still have is my feet. They don't work like they are supposed to ... not yet.''
Klinkner was the Mustangs' middle linebacker. He was asked about his dimensions as a sophomore in 2009 and said, "I was 6-4 and played at 240.''
He then added, "Right now, I'm about 4-foot-4,'' in a bit of wheelchair humor.
Asked about being absent from the action, Klinkner said: "Football was everything to me. When I'm on the sideline, and our defense is struggling, I can't stand it.''
The struggle was substantial last Saturday -- a 53-21 loss to Augustana in Sioux Falls. The Mustangs, 2-2, are home Saturday night for homecoming against Wayne (Neb.) State.
Paul Muecke, a senior linebacker from Plymouth and Klinkner's former roommate, said: "Derek's an inspiration for everyone, with his attitude and the progress we see him making. On the field, we miss him a lot. He was a great linebacker. I mean that -- mobile, tough, and with an instinct for getting to the ball.
"I'm convinced that, by his senior year, Derek was going to be a Division II All-America. That's how good he was in the middle.''
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • firstname.lastname@example.org