RIVERTON, Wyo. — He didn’t even see it coming. The senior linebacker rolled to his left to shut down Wind River’s toss sweep, and the tight end hit him hard on a legal crackback block.
It was a play that Joe Metzler and his parents, Ken and Kathy, would remember for the rest of their lives.
Joe’s last words on the field were in response to a question from his dad.
“What hurts, Joe?” Ken Metzler asked.
“My head,” Joe said, and then fell into unconsciousness.
It was the last conversation the two would have for many days.
A week later, in the intensive care unit at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, Metzler answered his dad’s request to squeeze his hand, and his hard journey back began.
The rivalry game between the Cougars and the Shoshoni Wranglers took place Sept. 12, 1997, in Pavillion. It’s been a long 15 years for Metzler, who is still recovering from the subdural hematoma he received that afternoon.
Metzler said the injury may have been initiated before his accident in Pavillion. Before the game, he had had a headache for days because of a hard hit the week before during the first game of the season against Dubois.
“I hit the Dubois running back so hard that I knocked both of my contact lenses out of my eyes,” Metzler said. “I had to get new contacts that week.
“I had a bad headache, but I didn’t tell anybody. I was at the top of the world — a tough, senior football player.”
After he lost consciousness in Pavillion, Metzler was taken by ambulance from the field to Riverton Memorial Hospital, where he was stabilized and placed on a Life Flight helicopter to Casper. In Casper he had a hole drilled in his skull to reduce the swelling caused by bleeding between his brain and skull.
Upon regaining consciousness, the extent of his injuries became apparent.
Double vision, blind spots and weakness in his left arm and leg caused by damage to the right portion of his brain required years of therapy to overcome. Some of the symptoms remain.
“Dr. (Ben) Kister, my eye doctor, told me it wasn’t my vision that was impaired, but weakness in my eye muscles,” Metzler said. “He referred me to the Snowy Range Vision Center in Laramie. They gave me exercises to do to strengthen my eyes.”
Kister approved Metzler for Lasik surgery in Billings, Mont., and that procedure, combined with muscle therapy, improved his vision to the point that he didn’t require the glasses he had worn since third grade. He now requires only a slight prescription for reading glasses, though he still has a couple of blind spots.
“My brain shifted enough that it had to learn to refocus my eyes,” Metzler said. “One day at Snowy Range a technician put a cup on a table and asked me how many cups I saw. I said, ‘Two.’
“She said, ‘Make it into one.’ I focused hard, and the two cups turned into one. ‘We’re finished with you,’ she said. ‘You’ll just have to concentrate on your focus until it becomes natural.”’
His blind spots require him to tilt his head a bit to the right to maintain clear vision, but otherwise his eyes now focus automatically.
Brain injuries as severe as Metzler’s often bring about personality changes as well as changes in cognitive function. Along his path to recovery Metzler has relied on memory aids, such as a notepad and pencil, and now he uses a digital voice recorder.
“I write everything down in my daily journal,” Metzler said.
His mom said he has also become more social.
“Joe was a very reserved kid, he didn’t talk much,” Kathy Metzler said. “After the injury he didn’t know a stranger and became very outgoing. People need to realize that the old Joe is gone. The new Joe is friendly, outgoing and a wonderful young man. People need to accept that.”
Metzler returned to Shoshoni High School in the spring of 1998 and graduated with his class. That fall he enrolled in Central Wyoming College’s automotive technology program.
“I was so weak I couldn’t take a full load that first year,” Metzler said. “I took a lot of PE classes to strengthen my left side. I use a Bowflex now, because I can set it to do more work on my left than my right side.”
He graduated from CWC with an associate’s degree in automotive technology and began working for Osborne Trucking at a job his grandfather helped find for him. He worked for Osborne as a service technician for 10 years before a slowdown in the natural gas industry forced the company to reduce its labor force. Metzler also worked briefly for the City of Riverton, washing and detailing police cars.
His current job came about in a unique way.
One morning his mom was having breakfast at Riverton’s Airport Cafe and discussing Metzler’s employment situation with a friend. A woman at the next table leaned over and asked, “Is your son looking for a job?”
Taken a bit aback, Kathy replied, “Well, yes, maybe.”
Margaret Stetler, then of Riverton Chrysler, and her husband, Jake, had a position for Metzler as a detailer in their shop. Later, John Gunnison took over the business, and Metzler now works in the shop at Gunner’s Automotive as a detailer. He also does some light mechanic work.
Metzler gets kidded, prodded and joked about just like any of the other guys on the crew.
Metzler was contemplative when he was asked to recall the best and worst experiences he has had since his injury.
“Being forced to redo everything is the worst,” he said. “I now learn everything by repetition. Trying to get everything back to where I wished it would be is hard.”
On the positive side, he was quick to recognize the people he’s met who have helped him in his life.
“I’ve learned what I’m capable of,” Metzler said. “This is not going to beat me. I’m stronger than this and better than it. I still have a lot of goals and a lot of dreams.”
Like any young man, Metzler’s dreams center on relationships and careers.
“The only goal I haven’t succeeded in yet is getting married and someday owning a custom vehicle business of my own,” he said.
Information from: The (Riverton, Wyo.) Ranger, http://www.dailyranger.com