PULLMAN – The grim-faced medical personnel at Pullman Regional Hospital did not tell James Montgomery his life was in danger, or that they might have to amputate his left leg.
No, they went easy on Montgomery on that fateful Sunday morning last September. They only told Montgomery his season was over, his career might be finished and it was possible he would never walk properly again.
Less than a year later, Montgomery is preparing to fight for a starting job in the Washington State backfield. Without playing a game, the senior running back might be the national comeback player of the year.
“I spent so much time in the training room, they call me ‘Wonder Body,’” Montgomery said with one of his frequent laughs.
Montgomery has always laughed, smiled and joked frequently. Combined with his considerable skills – Scout.com ranked him 20th in the nation among high school senior running backs in 2005 – it’s easy to see why Montgomery quickly became popular with Cougars teammates after he transferred to WSU from California in 2008.
“He’s a great dude,” WSU quarterback Marshall Lobbestael said. “Great dude.”
The life of the “great dude” from Rancho Cordova, Calif., took a dramatic turn for the worse last Sept. 19. Montgomery came out of the Southern Methodist game –which turned out to be WSU’s lone victory – in the fourth quarter with a seemingly minor calf injury.
“The calf wasn’t really hurting at the time,” Montgomery said. “It was just a little swelling.
“It didn’t feel like anything was wrong. It felt like your normal after-the-game pain.”
“Normal” pain turned into excruciating pain during the night.
“It felt like somebody was just pumping it up all through the night, just pumping more and more pressure up in the leg,” Montgomery said. “It got to the point where it felt like there was a brick in there. It felt like I was flexing my muscle as hard I could non-stop.”
Soon after Montgomery arrived at Pullman Regional at approximately 6 a.m. the day after the game, he was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome – impaired blood supply in a small area. Dr. Ed Tingstad, a former WSU running back from Spanaway, quickly performed surgery.
“He comes in and he tells me, ‘Your season is over and we don’t know if you’re ever going to be able to walk right,’” Montgomery recalled.
“Then they brought the morphine. He didn’t tell me anything was life-threatening, so I wasn’t that scared at the time.”
Only later did Tingstad inform Montgomery that amputation or even death could have occurred if surgery had been delayed a few hours.
“It changes your whole outlook on everything,” Montgomery said. “I used to hate coming in for summer workouts, but now it’s just like, every day you come in and get better.”
Montgomery says he’s “90, 95 percent” and is “full speed in all agility drills.” He says he doesn’t care if he starts or comes off the bench this season, but he expects to play in WSU’s opening game Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State.
“I’m going for 100 (rushing yards) that game,” Montgomery said. “At least.”
That would be at least 100 yards more than Montgomery expected to gain the rest of his life when he was lying in the hospital a year ago.
“From what everybody was telling me, I thought it was over,” Montgomery said.
“But then it started progressing fast. By Christmas break, I knew I had a shot.”
Montgomery sat out spring football following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
“The first four or five months, it would get really sore ... I came back after Fourth of July, and everything felt good,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery is on track to graduate in December with a general studies degree. He dreams of playing in the NFL, but said he might apply for a medical hardship year to gain one more year of eligibility after being limited to three games, 167 rushing yards and one touchdown last season.
“I just want to see how this year goes first,” Montgomery said. “I just want to get out there. I just want to play in all the games. Just show everybody what I can do. If I can still do anything.”
He laughed. It was a hearty laugh. The laugh of a young man grateful not just for a second chance in life, but for life itself.