Taygen Schuelke was down, hurt on the ground. But only banged up, he thought. Had the wind knocked out of him. It’s happened often enough.
His Newell football coaches had seen it happen, too, both on and off the gridiron. The senior had lost his sophomore football and wrestling seasons because of a fractured C7 vertebra in his neck during a bull riding competition. He wore a neck brace for 17 weeks and quietly built his strength.
He was sidelined part of this past summer because of a severe groin pull. Then he suffered an avulsion fracture of his hip in July during the high school rodeo finals that kept him out until the second game of the Class 9AA football season. Next, he dislocated ribs against Harding County. While waiting for all those wounds to heal, Schuelke was biding his time toward what would still be a promising Irrigator autumn.
At last, he was back at full strength for Newell’s homecoming game against Lemmon/McIntosh on Sept. 23. Playing middle linebacker, Schuelke finished a tackle and was hit by one of his own teammates on his right side.
Coaches rushed out to Schuelke, who was squirming on the ground.
“It was 10 yards in front of our bench, visible to all of us,” Newell coach and athletic director Steve Schoenfish said. “He was talking but just holding his chest like he’d lost his wind. His chest was hurting, but he’s a real tough kid. He wanted to play. … We gave him rib pads, and four or five minutes later he was back in the game.”
Finish the game Schuelke did, to the tune of a 12-8 victory. But at a parents’ dinner afterward, what was shaken off as another bump and bruise quickly set in motion a series of events that shook the Schuelke family’s sense of calm.
It started when Schuelke saw blood in his urine. He calmly told Schoenfish the news and still had a measured demeanor.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, it’s a bruised kidney. I’ll sit out a couple of weeks. It won’t be too bad,’” Schuelke said.
Schuelke and his parents, Darin and Jean, traveled to Sturgis for a CAT scan. It was discovered that Schuelke’s kidney was ruptured. The entire situation was becoming more surreal. Then the prognosis became dangerously serious — Schuelke’s ruptured kidney was the only one he had.
“It became a panic when they found out I only had one,” he said. “They were going to fly me out to Sioux Falls. They were thinking I’d need surgery, and so they had to get me to a specialist.”
“You just don’t expect that,” Jean Schuelke said. “We went to the hospital thinking it’ll be fine. We just needed to get it looked at. Not even an hour later, you find out he has one kidney. What do you do? … There was no reason to know; they said it’s about a one-in-1,000 chance, and it’s not necessarily hereditary.”
Upon their arrival in Sioux Falls, the shock of the preceding hours subsided with the first positive news of the night. As long as the hematoma in the kidney healed normally, no operation would be needed to repair the kidney.
Not taking any chances because of the importance of the kidney’s function, doctors had Taygen stay in Sioux Falls for a week. Day by day, slight improvements came.
He couldn’t do much more than sit up to use the restroom, but Taygen quickly returned to his sense of calm.
What had briefly rocked his equilibrium wasn’t going to deter him long.
“Honestly, I wasn’t that nervous about anything. I’ve put my faith and trust in God, and I knew He’d take care of me,” Taygen said.
Taygen went home after that week in Sioux Falls, and he remained there for another week. He was back in school by mid-October and had been attending school for half a day through the early part of November. There are obvious limitations.
He can’t complete any weight training, so there’s no preparing for the fast-approaching wrestling season. His high school football career had definitely come to an end.
But the community support was just beginning. Schoenfish said a gun raffle was held within town, and about $3,500 was raised toward medical expenses. When Newell played at Dupree on Sept. 30, the home school had a 50/50 raffle and donated all the proceeds to the Schuelkes.
As might be expected, cards, notes and well wishes were pouring in. The rodeo community stretches throughout all of South Dakota, and Schoenfish said the school was flooded with calls for Taygen’s address.
Consistent with his calm attitude, all the attention was a bit unsettling for the senior.
“I didn’t think it was going to be seen as that big a deal,” Taygen said. “And all of a sudden, all these cards and phone calls came. It is really nice to know that everyone cares. It’s hard to thank everyone for what they’ve all done. I guess you see something like that, and you give back to whoever’s hurt and needs it.”
Even if she was expecting the large response, Jean was still similarly overwhelmed.
“It makes you realize that there are such good people around here. It’s so hard to receive and much easier to give. That’s our nature,” she said. “We’re so thankful. Like Taygen, we don’t feel like we deserve it. There are so many other people out there who deserve it and need it much more.”
Taygen’s thankful, too, that the healing process seems to be going normally. He’s regained some of the weight he’d lost while recuperating, and his appetite is returning.
“He looks good. He’s got his smile back,” Jean beamed.
Taygen was able to at least be a part of the end of Newell’s football season, which ended with a playoff loss to Gettysburg/Hoven. He was encouraging teammates and was vocal on the sidelines. He said he believes it made the healing process faster.
“He’s never been one to complain,” Schoenfish said. “He always has a positive outlook. He was a great leader for our kids — a great, upbeat kid.”
Taygen could be receiving additional upbeat news. He is scheduled for a follow-up appointment later this month that could set a firmer timetable for his return to athletics.
So, someday soon, it’s likely that Taygen Schuelke could be down, hurt on the ground again after a fall. He could be banged up, the wind knocked out of him once more. It’s happened often enough.
But given his toughness, and the injuries he’s already bounced back from, there’s nothing that’s shaking his belief.
“My faith gets so strong, or a lot stronger, knowing what could have happened,” he said. “It’s great knowing I’m still alive, that I’ll hopefully be fine. I’m thankful for everything.”