MARSHALL - Derek Klinkner has always been obsessed with football.
Back in high schools, while teachers were giving lectures, Klinkner was drawing up plays in his notebook.
"Teachers would catch me drawing plays in my notebook instead of taking notes," Klinkner said.
Photo by Joe Brown
Southwest Minnesota State senior Derek Klinkner stands near the entrance of the Regional Event Center, home of the SMSU football team. Klinkner’s football career was cut short due to a severe back injury suffered in a farming accident. While recovering, he continued to help out the team any way he could, and he also joined the SMSU?wheelchair basketball team.
"And this is terrible, but I've done that these past five years in college. I still do it today."
For two seasons, Klinkner was a force on the field for the Southwest Minnesota State football team as its middle linebacker, finishing with 139 tackles in 22 games (21 starts).
Then it all came crashing down on May 11, 2010, when Klinkner's football career came to a tragic end. Helping his dad move a water tank on the family's farm in Artesian, S.D., the water tank fell on Klinkner, breaking his back and dislocating the T-12 and L-1 vertebrae in his back. Klinkner had two metal rods inserted into his back to realign his spinal cord, but the concern was that Klinkner would never walk again.
"That was a tough time with Derek's accident," said SMSU linebacker JJ Bobrowicz. "He was like the defensive captain. He was that player you wanted to be friends with and the player you wanted to be on the field."
But that has never dampened Klinkner's love of football. The first chance he got, he rolled his wheelchair onto Mattke Field to watch the Mustangs practice and play that fall.
"I remember one time last year, seeing Derek come out to on of our practices, he came out with his walker and made it to the field," said SMSU head football coach Cory Sauter. "We stopped practice and everyone was amazed. Everyone gave him a round of applause. To him, it was no big deal."
In the 2010 season finale against Concordia-St. Paul, with the aide of a walker, Klinkner led the team onto the field for the final game of the season. In 2011, Klinkner continued to patrol the sidelines, helping coach the linebackers as a student assistant.
And while he'll never be able to suit up for SMSU again, his love of the game did not go unnoticed, as Klinkner will receive the "Courage Award" from the Minnesota chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame during the foundation's "Honoring Legends, Inspiring Leaders" awards banquet on April 22 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
"A lot of professional athletes and Hall of Fame athletes will be there to receive awards, so it's just an honor to even be considered," Klinkner said. "It's just another thing that God has blessed me with. It's another chance to share Jesus with everyone."
Coming to grips
Klinkner loved the game of football, but after the accident, it was heartbreaking to be on the sidelines.
Instead of tackling offensive backs and striking fear into opposing teams, all Klinkner could do was sit and watch.
"I didn't want to go to practice," Klinkner said. "I only went because my best friends and teammates were there."
The coaches could see the frustration coming from Klinkner.
"Any time you take a passion of yours and pull it away, that's a tough thing," Sauter said. "You take that away from someone, it's not an overnight thing. It does take some time and healing.
"I think Derek has finally come to grips as far as the finality of playing football and being fine with it. He understands now, and he can get himself ready for those next 40 or 50 years of his life. ... He's been through a lot and I really think he's got a lot of confidence now because of it."
While things were tough, Klinkner was tired of just sitting idly by, especially at watching the linebacker unit, where the Mustangs were replacing six-year senior Paul Muecke with Bobrowicz, and moving Phil Breidall from fullback to linebacker.
Klinkner wanted to help the team, one way or another.
"I got tired of just sitting and watching, so I went to Coach Sauter and said, 'Anything I can do to help get more involved with the football program?'" Klinkner said. "He told me to talk to Coach (Christian) Guenther (SMSU's defensive coordinator), and he had me help with the linebackers."
A knack for coaching
Since high school as he doodled defensive schemes in his notebook, Klinkner envisioned himself as a coach. Helping with the linebackers gave him his first opportunity to prove his meddle on the sidelines, helping run drills and giving some more attention to the younger linebackers in the Mustangs' lineup. On game days, along with helping with the linebackers, Klinkner would write out defensive calls on a whiteboard.
"He was there every practice, always working with a lot of the younger linebackers who were transitioning from high school to college," Bobrowicz said.
During the season, Klinkner focused his attention on Bobrowicz, who moved from defensive end to play the middle linebacker role, Klinkner's former position.
"I really clung to him and put most of my effort into him," Klinkner said about helping Bobrowicz. "Obviously I'm biased, but I feel like MIKE linebacker is one of the most important positions on the field."
Finishing fourth on the team with 71 tackles last season, Bobrowicz said Klinkner would often wait for him on the sidelines to help break things down and coach the then-sophomore linebacker up.
"It really helped me out," Bobrowicz said. "One major thing he always told me early on was that I was too high and needed to lower my center of gravity. Move quicker and be smaller. Footwork was another big one we worked a lot on together in drills at practice."
Moving to the hardwood
Athletics wasn't completely out of the question for Klinkner after the farm accident. The past two years, Klinkner has been a member of the SMSU wheelchair basketball team. And using some of his new-found coaching knowledge, he'll stay on the hardwood for two more years to work as a graduate assistant coach. After talking with head coach Lew Shaver and SMSU Director of Athletics Chris Hmielewski, Klinkner will be a player/coach for the Mustangs.
"It actually started out as a joke," Klinkner said about becoming a GA. "One day I was walking into Lew's office and I talked to him and said, 'Hey, Brian (Patrick) is graduating next year, who's going to be your GA (graduate assistant) next year?' and he said, 'I don't really have one.' 'I'll do it,' I jokingly to Lew. Then he said he'd check on it.
"About a week later, Lew asked if I wanted it, so I asked, 'Can I play and coach?' He said he'd check on that," Klinkner added. "Another week later Lew said, 'Yeah, you can play and coach. You want it?' I thought about it a little bit. Another week later, Lew was in Hmielewski's office, he called me and said, 'Well Derek, I need a decision, are you going to do it? You can play and coach.' And I said I'd do it."
Bringing a football mindset to wheelchair basketball is something Klinkner and Shaver have been able to share. For two seasons (1977-78), Shaver was the head football coach at SMSU.
"Lew has that football mentality. We see eye-to-eye on things," Klinkner said. "...We think alike in that football sense. It should be a great mix for the next year or two."
"I will walk again someday"
Since the accident, Klinkner has found new feats of strength. Starting out in a wheelchair, he progressed to forearm crutches and today, he walks around campus with a cane.
Finishing physical therapy before the football season last year, Klinkner heard from some of his friends who had experienced spinal trauma that the best therapy was to just walk.
"I forced myself to go farther and farther," Klinkner said. "I'd walk from my car to classes, working on those muscles and getting stronger and stronger.
"How far can I walk? It depends on the day. Some days, I feel like I can walk forever. Other days, I'm tired from the day before."
Seeing where Klinkner has come from since the accident in May 2010, Sauter said the transition has been night and day.
"You just never know how a person is going to respond to injuries and recover," Sauter said. "More than anything, it was just his will and mindset that he was going to walk again, having that attitude each and every day."
Bobrowicz added, "Having him around was such good motivation. He'd always talk about his last college game and how you can never go half speed because you never know when your last play is. He was a good motivator because he always had a good attitude. He looked like he was always having a good time and he doesn't let anything bring him down."
Klinkner's recovery also strengthened his faith. Working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Klinkner has told his testimony many times in hopes of inspiring others.
"If you ever talk to me about Jesus, I'll say he's a pretty neat guy," he said. "If you talk to some people who have known me for four or five years, they'll say, 'He's a totally different person.' It's one of those deals that through Jesus, I've just grown so much."
He's made a lot of progress, but Klinkner's not yet content with his recovery.
"I will walk again someday without my cane," he said. "I will make a full recovery. I will go for runs and stuff like that. There's no doubt in my mind."
Sauter added, "I have no doubts that he can continue to get better. It's one of those things he'll keep working at to have another step in his recovery."