Joel Teats had a terrible end to 2013.
His expensive bicycle was stolen on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University.
And his priceless Lutes football career was almost taken away by injury.
But to know Teats, a linebacker from Richland, is to understand what makes him tick. He is not only an eternal optimist, but he is a determined fighter.
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“Uncommon toughness,” PLU defensive coordinator Craig McCord said.
As PLU takes the field Saturday for the final game this season, it will bid adieu to one of its most heralded recruiting classes — 26 seniors, including Teats, who led the school to four consecutive winning seasons, including back-to- back NCAA Division III national playoff appearances, in 2012 and last season.
Barring a miracle, the Lutes will not make the postseason this time around — which makes the journey’s end Saturday at Sparks Stadium a special day.
The fact Teats — the Lutes’ leading tackler (64 tackles, including team-high 91/2 tackles for loss) — will be able to share that with teammates is a mini-miracle in itself.
Near the end of last season, the Lutes hosted Pacific in a key Northwest Conference game in Puyallup. Because regular inside linebacker Dalton Darmody was serving a half-game suspension for being ejected the week before, Teats got his first career start at right-side linebacker.
Teats was also a special-teams stalwart. On a Lutes kickoff return, he was blocking when he felt a pile of players fall on the back of his right foot.
Days later, a doctor told Teats he had suffered a Lisfranc foot injury, or fractures of the metatarsal bones in the middle of the foot. Teats was also warned ahead of time that even after surgery, there was no guarantee he would play football again.
“The doctor was optimistic, but he also said that it had ended other athletes’ careers,” Teats said. “He also told me that if I did return, there was a chance I would not be the same player, that I would lose some of my speed and agility.”
During surgery last November, a metal plate was inserted to stabilize two of the metatarsal bones. Nine months of rigorous rehabilitation followed, which included a lot of foot strengthening and stretching exercises.
“I would have to put a sock between my toes,” Teats said, “and squeeze it as hard as I could.”
Seventh months later, he was cleared for spring ball — which surprised many, including McCord.
“I was totally expecting his rehab to go on longer, and hoping by fall ball he could come out and compete,” McCord said. “But he came out in spring, even though he wasn’t 100 percent. And he was in a lot of pain, but you could tell he worked through that as well.”
A self-described fast healer, Teats has had to deal with a lot of pain this fall. There have been days he hasn’t been able to finish practice, and games where he had to ice his foot immediately after the final whistle, said linebackers coach Jim Lindberg.
But Teats has been a key contributor as a full-time starter. He has not missed a game. In last week’s 41-27 victory over Whitworth, he had his best performance — a team-high 14 tackles, including three sacks.
“We talk a lot about guys closing their performance gaps … or guys playing close to their potential,” McCord said. “He has exceeded my expectations. He has given us everything he can.”
Teats said he’s glad to just contribute to the Lutes’ no-name defense.
“I backed up Jordan Patterson for three years, so I had an idea of what I was capable of,” Teats said. “It’s been a pretty good year, stat-wise. But the only thing I’ve cared about is that our defense has been doing well. We have exceeded expectations.”