NORTH MUSKEGON – Everyone at North Muskegon figured they had seen the last of Eli Rudicil on a football field.

Even Rudicil assumed that his prep career was probably finished, and he was thinking about other tasks he could do to remain on the sideline during his senior year.

The doubts about his football future were certainly warranted, because Rudicil has fractured his back twice within four years, in the same area.

The second break occurred last season in North Muskegon’s game against Whitehall. X-rays revealed that he had fractured his L5 vertebrae, the same vertebrae he fractured in the seventh grade in a trampoline mishap.

He spent several months in a back brace while enduring physical therapy, and he was angry because football seemed to be in the rear-view mirror.

North Muskegon senior lineman Eli Rudicil. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to come back out this year,” Rudicil said. “I was super upset about it. I just love the game of football and being part of the team. The feeling of playing football is different than any other sport.”

The injury healed up by the turn of the year, however, and Rudicil started hitting the weight room again. Before he knew it he was putting on a lot of bulk – shooting up from 180 pounds to 220 – and decided to play again.

“By March I had put on 40 pounds and I decided to give it one more shot,” Rudicil said. “Right now I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.”

Rudicil went through voluntary summer football drills and said he felt fine.

On Monday, when the Norse had their first official practice, Rudicil was back out there with his teammates, beginning preparations for the season opener against Muskegon Catholic on Aug. 26.

“We put the pads on this week, and I know if I do what I’m supposed to do, the chances of me getting hurt again are pretty slim,” he said.

Rudicil, right, locks arms with a teammate during a light drill on Monday, the first day of full workouts for the Norse. Photo/Jeremy Clark

Lots of adults in his life have reservations about his decision, including some medical personnel who helped him through his latest injury.

“My physical therapist said it was not a good idea,” Rudicil said. “He said it was up to me, but there is some risk of another injury.”

Rudicil said his parents remain concerned.

“They really don’t want me to play, but they say they will support me,” he said.

North Muskegon head coach Larry Witham expressed his concern to Rudicil way back in the spring, when he first announced his intention to play again.

“He was in the weight room a lot, we were talking back and forth, and he said he wanted to take another shot at it,” Witham said.  “I asked him if he was sure, and reminded him that the rest of his life is more important, but he basically said that I really didn’t understand.”

‘There’s something about the human spirit’

Rudicil’s back problem traces back to a birthday party he attended in the seventh grade at a trampoline park.

“I tried to do a backflip, slipped and fractured my L5 and slipped a disk,” he said. “There wasn’t a ton they could do for me. They just told me no physical activity for five months and I was in a back brace for about a month.

“It was pretty miserable. I had a lot of problems in my legs, because the disk was rubbing on nerves and causing them to go numb.”

The injury forced Rudicil to skip his eighth-grade football season and run cross country instead. That was frustrating for him, because his parents didn’t allow him to play football until middle school, and suddenly he was sidelined again.

Rudicil returned to the sport as a freshman on the North Muskegon junior varsity. He admits he was apprehensive at first, and only decided to go back to football at the last minute.

Rudicil gets ready to plow into a blocking pad held by a teammate. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I joined the day before camp started,” he said. “I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to hurt myself again.”

He remained pretty healthy through his two seasons of JV football, although he admits he experienced some back pain late in games.

“I just pushed through it,” he said. “I didn’t think anything was wrong.”

The second break occurred last year, when Rudicil was a starter on the North Muskegon varsity squad.

The Norse were playing Whitehall on Sept. 24 on an all-around miserable night, in a game they ended up losing 33-0.

Rudicil was playing on the punt team in the second half when he first noticed the pain.

Rudicil, right, and his teammates take a quick breather between plays on Monday. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I dove for a tackle and felt a lot of pain, but I guess because of the adrenaline I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “On the very next play their tackle down-blocked and I got hit by their pulling guard, and it hurt really bad. I came out of the game, then went into the locker room after the game. My legs went numb and I passed out.

“I remember sitting with our defensive line coach, who was trying to calm me down, and I was kind of in and out of consciousness. The pain was exactly how I remembered when it happened before, which was why I was starting to freak out. I knew it was something serious.”

Coach Witham was shaken by the scene in the locker room.

“That was something I will never forget,” he said. “He was in excruciating pain, and it was like he was in and out of consciousness. His parents were in the locker room, and they took him by ambulance to the hospital. We thought for sure that it was broke again, and we thought for sure we would never see him play again.”

The next few months were miserable for Rudicil.

“The first injury wasn’t all the way healed, and as days went on the pain was worse than the first time,” he said. “I was hunched over trying to walk. I wasn’t able to take the brace off until mid-December.”

Rudicil, who’s expected to create a lot of havoc for opponents as a defensive end this season, breaks through the line during practice. Photo/Jeremy Clark

Luckily Rudicil healed up nicely, as kids tend to do, then hit the weight room, and that of course brought back thoughts of football.

“I have always kind of been into lifting, and this time I really got into it,” he said. “I was eating and putting on a lot of weight, and I started building more muscle. By March I was lifting heavy stuff.”

Rudicil admits there was one incident, after he decided to return to football, that was a little bit worrisome.

“I was at the gym and I tried to do a deadlift, which I hadn’t done before, and I felt immediate pain,” he said. “It lasted like two days. After that I was a little apprehensive about playing. But it’s my senior year and I really want to come back. It would be too hard, after all the hard work I put in, to walk away.”

Jim Rudicil, Eli’s dad and the executive director of the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park, said he and his wife are cautiously optimistic.

“He’s put in the work, and through weightlifting and conditioning he’s done everything he can to prepare himself,” Jim Rudicil said. “He’s definitely increased his size, so hopefully he’s on the other end of dishing out the big hits.

“We’re both nervous about it – you never want to see your child set up for something that could have a lifelong impact – but from what the doctors say he’s healed and conditioned enough to hopefully have a successful season.”

North Muskegon head coach Larry Witham

Witham admits he’s happy to have his standout defensive end/offensive tackle back on the team – as long as he’s up to it.

“Eli has put in an enormous amount of work to get ready for this season,” the coach said. “He’s a really important part of our football team. We will certainly keep an eye on him as we progress through the season. We need to make sure we do everything we can to make sure he remains safe. Nobody wants to see that happen again.

“We had a 7-on-7 team camp at Oakridge, and I kept asking him how he was doing, and he said great, he felt really good. It’s like he hasn’t missed a beat.”

More than anything, Witham respects Rudicil’s tenacity and determination to finish his varsity career with his teammates.

“He’s just one of those guys,” Witham said. “He was convinced that he was going to overcome this, and he did. There is just something about the human spirit and the heart of a kid that’s pretty special. It’s hard not to love that type of spirit.”100