At first, and then for a long time after, Armstrong football coach Jack Negen didn't believe a comeback was possible. How could he? It defied everything he'd heard and come to understand about knee injuries.
The recovery time for an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear — the time it takes from the day of surgery to the day an athlete is prepared to take the field again — is generally about nine to 10 months. There was no way Armstrong starting quarterback Jake Breitbach would be back calling out signals in time for this season, not after tearing the ACL in his left knee in March while playing for the Falcons' basketball team.
Medically, it appeared, there was not enough time.
"It's usually a 10-month injury," Negen said. "We just figured he was done."
He figured wrong. Breitbach, a 6-3 senior, proved to be a remarkably fast healer. By early summer, he was throwing in seven-on-seven passing leagues. By August he was back working with the team. And by Week 1, there was Breitbach, leading the team to a 21-0 win over Spring Lake Park.
Armstrong has been rolling since, posting a 5-0 record, its best start in at least 20 years.
"It was always the idea that I was going to come back," Breitbach said. "I was a little concerned at first because everyone told me I wasn't going to play, but I always felt I was going to play."
And play he has. After splitting time at quarterback in the season opener with Thai Bowman, who has since become his favorite receiver, Breitbach has been the sole signal-caller for the Falcons. He's completed 61 of 102 passes for 926 yards and 17 touchdowns, just one fewer touchdown than in all of 2018.
Because of the knee injury, his 120 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown are significantly down from a year ago, when he ran for 885 yards and 15 touchdowns. But the perpetually upbeat Breitbach sees a silver lining in that.
"My passing wasn't as good last year as it is this year," he said. "I'm passing it more and running it less."
His main passing beneficiary has been Bowman, a polished 6-1, 180-pound senior receiver who most certainly will be playing college football.
His brother, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, is a junior wide receiver for Northwestern in the Big Ten.
"We talk all the time," Bowman said of his relationship with his brother. "I'm always asking him how he does this or how to do that."
Those lessons have paid dividends on the field. Bowman and Breitbach have hooked up 27 times for 450 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, leaning on a bond developed over years of playing together.
"There are times when I haven't even turned around and he's thrown the ball," Bowman said. "I know what he's going to do, and he knows what I'm going to do."
Breitbach says the reason he's so fond of throwing to Bowman is simple:
"He's always open."
When Breitbach was on the mend, Negen told Bowman that he would be taking over at quarterback this season.
"I was going to play quarterback, whatever the team needed, but I'm glad [Breitbach] is back," Bowman said. "We always knew in the backs of our heads that he'd find a way to get back on the field. He's a fighter. We know him. He's resilient."
"Jake told us the whole summer that he would be playing," Negen said. "We were like 'Yeah, we'll see.' We were going to go with Thai because he's a great athlete. But JB just kept working, going to rehab, running around a lot better. Then we started thinking 'Maybe toward the end of the season, can we get him a couple of games before playoffs or something?' "
Bowman ran for two short touchdowns from the quarterback position in the opener, but said his favorite moment of the season came in the Falcons' next game, a 37-11 rout of Hopkins.
"My first touchdown catch of the season," Bowman recalled. "That's when I knew everything was going to be fine."
With the two leaders healthy and making plays, their energy and confidence has filtered down throughout the team. The running game, even without Breitbach carrying the ball, has been solid. The defense has been even better, giving up just 36 total points all year. Best of all, the Falcons are winning and having fun doing it.
"Being 5-0, it's amazing," Breitbach said Tuesday, laughing despite a drenching downpour on Armstrong's field. "This is my dream, right here."