EPWORTH — A bump in the road changed Matt Riniker’s life forever.
But the Western Dubuque sophomore has refused to let that take him in a negative direction.
Less than a year after having part of his right leg amputated, Riniker, 15, returned to the football field this fall, playing fullback and middle linebacker for the Bobcats’ sophomore team.
“I think all people should know even the hardest things, positives can come out of it,” he said.
Riniker is one of 12 finalists for the Parade Magazine/Inspireum National High School Football “Rudy” Awards. Named after former Notre Dame football player Daniel Ruettiger, the inspiration for the movie “Rudy,” the award honors football players “who have overcome adversity to show true commitment to the game.”
Riniker certainly fits the description.
“It’s just a great story of a kid who refuses to give up under any circumstances,” Western Dubuque sophomore coach Tom Jasper told the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald.
Riniker was riding his four-wheeler Sept. 2, 2009, near his home in Luxemburg after his daily chores when he hit a bump on a dirt road and flipped his ATV. He doesn’t remember much about the accident — “I must have blacked out” — but when he awoke he had a broken leg.
“It was a bad break,” he said.
“I didn’t think it was anything too major, just a broken bone,” his mother, Jody, told the T-H.
He broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg. But after the bones were set, multiple infections set in and nearly a year and 13 surgeries later the family was faced with a decision — continue treatment that included a metal frame and screw or amputation.
Riniker met with doctors in Iowa City who spelled out the pros and cons of amputation, then met with an amputee in Dubuque who was living a normal — and athletic — life.
A year after the accident, on Sept. 3, 2010, Riniker’s leg was amputated midway up his calf.
“Probably the toughest decision I ever made,” he said. “Seeing that (man in Dubuque) kind of made my decision.”
“He was the first one to say ‘I want the leg off. I want to move on with my life ...’” his father, Randy, told the T-H.
And move on he did.
Less than two months after surgery, Riniker was walking with the help of a prosthetic device. By May, he was playing baseball. “It was amazing how tired I got,” he said. And by the end of summer he rejoined the football team.
“My main goal was to get back to football,” Riniker said.
He admitted he was a little nervous about the contact at first — he wears a protective shield over the prosthetic — but after a few practices “it all came back to me.”
He was a tailback before the accident, but said he’s not as fast as he used to be, so he switched to fullback.
“I really don’t care where I’m playing,” he said. “As long as I’m playing, that’s all that matters.”
Riniker has read a few of the stories about the other 11 Rudy Award finalists and is inspired by those battling cancer. He relishes being an inspiration to others, too.
“It’s an honor I’m glad to have,” he said.
“People have been wondering, these little hurdles in life, can we jump over these hurdles and continue on with the race or lay over and play dead?” his father told the T-H. “He’s definitely a good inspiration that way.”
Especially at his school.“Matt wouldn’t allow himself to have any limitations,” Jasper said. “No matter what obstacles, Matt has overcome them and made himself better and his teammates, as well.”