MANKATO – His gait still unsure four months after a near-fatal beating, Isaac Kolstad stepped to the head of a line of football players streaming into the Minnesota State, Mankato stadium Thursday.

Leading his former teammates to the center of the field, he stopped, turned to the stands and raised his fist, touching off a roar of approval from the stands packed with more than 6,000 Mavericks fans.

"It was amazing, just pure joy," said his cousin Annie Jessop, one of more than 130 family members also in the stands to watch Kolstad proclaim his return from injuries that had left him lingering on life-support for weeks. Like many others, she wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan "#22strong" in honor of Kolstad, who had worn No. 22 as a linebacker on the team before graduating in 2013. "I can think of nothing else to say but 'We love you Isaac' " Jessop said.

The Mavericks' season opener was only the latest turn in Kolstad's inspirational recovery from a beating police say was administered in May by Philip Nelson, a former star quarterback at the University of Minnesota who had recently transferred to Rutgers.

Doctors had told the family to prepare for the worst after he was punched and then kicked in the head while laying unconscious on the street. The story of his life since then, told in part by his wife, Molly, on a Caring Bridge website, has resonated in this football-loving town, with donors and Kolstad's former employer raising more than $150,000 to help the family pay medical bills and expenses related to Kolstad's against-the-odds fight.

"I'm super, super proud of Isaac right now," said Molly Kolstad, speaking to reporters before the game. Speaking publicly for the first time since the May 11 fight that landed Kolstad in the hospital, she said her husband has only a general understanding of what happened that night.

"He's ready to come home," she said. "He wants to be a husband again. He wants to be a dad, and he can't wait to go back to work." The couple have two children, including an infant daughter born less than a month after his injury.

Kolstad only recently began walking without assistance. His speech has slowly improved, but sentences are short. His brain injury makes it difficult for him to say the right words, she said. Still, she's grateful for how far he's come. The first brain scan of his injuries back in May had doctors telling the family not to expect too much.

For now, daily life has been centered around Kolstad's five hours of inpatient therapy in St. Paul five days a week. He hopes to move home this fall, said Molly.

A criminal case is still pending, with Nelson and St. Peter resident Trevor Shelley charged in the ­beating.

The fight, which took place near a downtown intersection about 2 a.m., lasted just seconds, and may have been based on a misunderstanding in which Kolstad was confused with someone else. A Mankato police sergeant who reviewed video footage from city cameras said Kolstad seemed to trigger the physical confrontation when he struck Nelson in the back. Shelley then allegedly punched Kolstad in the head, knocking him to the ground unconscious and sending Kolstad headfirst into the pavement. Nelson then allegedly kicked a defenseless Kolstad in the head.

The Mavericks' 31-0 victory over St. Cloud State Thursday night was also the return of coach Todd Hoffner, who was removed from the post two years ago when school officials found pictures of his children naked on his school phone. A judge later dismissed child pornography charges against Hoffner, saying the pictures were nothing more than children at innocent play.

The university still fired him though. Hoffner had already accepted a job as head coach at Minot State University in North Dakota when an arbitrator ruled in his favor in April. He immediately returned to Mankato.

Another of Kolstad's cousins, Matt Jessop, said the family's attitude since early on is one of ­forgiveness. "We're not condemning anybody," he said. "No negative stuff. What we're focused on is Isaac and his recovery."

"We do want to pray for everybody. It's not just Isaac. There are a lot of lives that have been affected by this."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329