From a football perspective, maybe Niko Madison was meant to play at Pacific Lutheran University all along.
Each day for three seasons at Tahoma High School, the tailback practiced or ran a formation called “Frosty” in South Puget Sound League North Division games.
“It was a formation where we had a (fly) sweeper, and we used it on almost every play,” Madison said.
Did he have any idea “Frosty” was named after legendary Lutes coach Frosty Westering?
“Had no idea,” Madison said. “Do now.”
And now, Madison is fully integrated into PLU’s offense.
Starting the season as the backup to Brandon James, Madison, a junior, took over the job in the second week. He ended up becoming the first Lutes running back to lead the Northwest Conference in rushing
during the regular season since Anthony Hicks in 1998.
Admittedly, it wasn’t a great year in the conference for rushing — Madison ran for 750 yards. He also had the highest per-carry average (5.8 yards) among rushers with at least 100 attempts.
Madison should be heavily featured as 13th-ranked PLU (8-1) visits No. 2 Linfield (9-0) in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday in McMinnville, Ore.
“Our cross-blocking trap system ... is a system you’ve got to run and get a feel for,” PLU coach Scott Westering said. “Brandon got hurt at Cal Lutheran after a 60-yard run and has never been back since. Niko really took that opportunity and ran with it, and has done a tremendous job for us.”
PLU’s program reaches out to life beyond football. And maybe that is why Madison was really meant to be with the Lutes.
He experienced life trials growing up in Maple Valley — starting with a football game in eighth grade.
In October 2006, Madison was playing linebacker at Tahoma Junior High School. Right next to him was close buddy Zack Lystedt.
Late in the first half, Madison came up to make a tackle on a running back. He was stiff-armed and fell out of the play. Up came Lystedt in support.
“I remember the play vividly,” Madison said. “Zack came out of nowhere. He tackled the guy. They spun around, and the back of Zack’s head hit the ground. He got up and said his head hurt.”
Lystedt came out, but later returned to finish the game — only to collapse on the field after it ended.
He was transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for emergency brain surgery. He experienced countless strokes and spent three months in a coma but survived.
The Lystedt Law, passed in Washington state in 2009, prevents youth football players from returning to games after suffering concussions.
“For a long time, I really beat myself up over it,” Madison said. “Deep down, I had the feeling of ‘What if?’ — like what if I had made that tackle?”
Tahoma High coach Tony Davis knew plenty about Madison back then, calling him a bit of a “lost soul.”
“He was always kind of on his own,” Davis said.
The one thing Madison never let sag once he got to high school was his grades, and he was accepted to PLU in 2011.
Madison was good enough to play as a freshman. But a month into his college career, he suffered through another tragedy.
It happened on a Monday night — Sept. 26 — in Maple Valley. His friend Kevin Langdahl, 18, was killed instantly in a one-car accident.
“He was a friend I grew up with since we were 6,” Madison said. “He was like my brother, and we hung out all the time.”
Madison said he woke up the next day to a bunch of text messages from friends offering their condolences over Langdahl’s death.
“It was crazy — I was just with him the day before that,” Madison said. “At the time ... I really felt alone. I didn’t want to play football anymore or go to school.”
Informed of the accident, Westering immediately sought out Madison. He advised him to tend to personal business and return to the team whenever he was ready.
In the middle of the week, Westering drove up to Auburn and met Madison in a Walmart parking lot to deliver a slew of “Lutes Salutes,” or homemade cards containing messages written by PLU players and coaches.
“I gave him a big hug, said a prayer with him and gave him the stack of cards,” Westering said. “It was still hard for him to understand, accept and believe it was real ... but it was pretty amazing how it impacted him.”
Madison returned to the sideline midway through PLU’s next game, Oct. 1 against the University of Puget Sound in Puyallup. Westering immediately put him in, and he scored on a 1-yard run in a 21-7 Lutes victory.
“Everyone kind of picked me up,” Madison said. “It just took me a long time ... to embrace it.”
When Scott Westering’s father, Frosty, died this past April, one of the most poignant letters he received during his period of mourning came from Madison.
“What he did for me in that parking lot,” Madison said, “changed our relationship forever.”
No. 13 PACIFIC LUTHERAN (8-1) at No. 2 LINFIELD (9-0)
NCAA Division III playoffs, first round
Noon, Maxwell Field, McMinnville, Ore.
The coaches: Scott Westering is in his 10th season at PLU (55-36 record). Joseph Smith is in his eighth season at Linfield (69-14).
The series: Linfield leads, 39-21-4. The Wildcats have won 13 consecutive games against the Lutes, including a 27-24 victory in the first round of the NCAA playoffs last season. Linfield also won this year’s regular-season game, 29-0, on Oct. 5. The Lutes’ last victory was 31-20 in 2001. The schools have split six playoff meetings.
Statistical leaders: PLU — QB Dalton Ritchey (153 of 265, 1,913 yards, 13 TDs, 14 INTs; 123 carries, 535 yards, 10 TDs), RB Niko Madison (129 carries, 750 yards, seven TDs), WR Kyle Warner (48 catches, 804 yards, eight TDs), LB Jordan Patterson (72 tackles, 151/2 tackles for loss).
Linfield — QB Josh Yoder (129 of 201, 1,866 yards, 16 TDs, six INTs; 118 carries, 566 yards, 14 TDs), RB Josh Hill (119 carries, 532 yards, 13 TDs), WR Brian Balsiger (30 catches, 442 yards, four TDs), LB Dominique Forrest (68 tackles, 101/2 tackles for loss).
What to watch: Does PLU have a realistic chance to win? Sure. First and foremost, the offense — particularly Ritchey — cannot turn the ball over multiple times. Ritchey has been responsible for nine turnovers in the past two games against Linfield. Expect PLU to lean on Madison, the Northwest Conference’s leading rusher, and the run game — at least in the early going. ... What is the best way to attack the Wildcats’ defense? In last year’s playoff game, Ritchey repeatedly went to Warner, who responded with 12 receptions for a career-high 205 yards. This is a better Linfield defense, and the Lutes could take a page from what Pacific (Ore.) did last week — play for first downs and control the clock. In a 28-22 win, the Wildcats only ran 60 plays and held the ball less than 25 minutes. ... How does the PLU defense stack up? Pretty well, actually. In the past two games, the Wildcats have gained 643 total yards on 138 plays (4.7 yards per play) against the Lutes. The defense easily has held up its end of things.
What’s at stake: Winner plays the Hampden-Sydney (Va.)/Maryville (Tenn.) winner in the round of 16 on Nov. 30 at a site to be determined.
Tickets: $10 for general admission and $15 for reserved seating.
TNT pick: Linfield, 27-17.Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 email@example.com @ManyHatsMilles firstname.lastname@example.org