Relentless Swagger

Photo Courtesy of New Prairie AthleticsBrandon Kasinger returns a kick for New Prairie in last week's game with South Bend Clay.

NEW CARLISLE — Brandon Kasinger remembers the exact day it happened.

“June 23.”

It’s a day he’ll never forget. An afternoon that was already going to be a memorable one turned out as such, just for the wrong reasons.

The New Prairie football team traveled 20 miles east to Notre Dame in the summer of 2018 for an annual 7-on-7 tournament with a bevvy of local high school teams. The event was a spectacle of sorts for the kids and their families, with an opportunity to play on the Irish’s field in a stadium that sits over 80,000 for the championship game.

“We always try to make it a fun event for the kids and their families,” said New Prairie associate head coach Bill Gumm. “We’ll all come up together, the parents will have picnics outside, it’s a fun time.”

Kasinger had the chance to step foot on and play in the same stadium that’s seen seven Heisman Trophy winners and 10 national champions since it was erected in 1930. An opportunity as unique as this one is something the Cougars look forward to every summer, as both its varsity and junior varsity teams take part.

A sophomore, Kasinger was about to play in it for the first time. The added aspect of playing up with the varsity made June 23 even more important for him.

He held his own on both sides of the ball, impressing his coaches early on. Kasinger used his best weapon in his quickness to his advantage, running slick routes, making guys miss and even jumping a route for an interception when he was put in at linebacker.

The high of picking off a varsity quarterback was exhilarating. But such as life is sometimes, everything can change in a pop.

On the very next play, Kasinger dropped back to cover a receiver. He took a wrong turn and planted his right foot in an effort to quickly correct his positioning.

“My foot turned, but my leg didn’t,” he said.

The ensuing popping sound from his knee was so loud that everyone on the sidelines could hear it perfectly, as if they were right next to Kasinger.

He immediately crumbled to the ground, but not because the pain was excruciating. Kasinger just knew something was wrong, and he knew almost immediately that he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

His trainer rushed onto the field and ran some tests by wiggling Kasinger’s leg in different directions. It didn’t take long before she uttered a sentence that put a pit in his stomach: “Yeah, it’s definitely your ACL.”

“Honestly, I was more mad than I was hurt or upset,” Kasinger said.

Kasinger’s parents received a phone call just minutes after they arrived, notifying them of whathappened. They ran down to the sidelines to their upset Kasinger sitting on the sidelines.

The Kasingers couldn’t fully tell the severity of the injury until Brandon's brother scooped him up and carried him like a baby into the car. Putting any weight on his right leg was just too painful.

Kasinger rested at home for the night, but when he woke up in the morning, lifting his leg proved to be an impossible task. He went to the emergency room, where what he feared became a reality: He tore his right ACL. A rehabilitation journey that takes 12 months loomed, and Kasinger was ready to attack it head on.

He worked tirelessly with a trainer for four hours every Monday through Friday after school for the good part of a year. The first task at hand, which he describes as one of the most difficult things he did throughout the process, was minimally raising his leg.

Months of progression from that to walking with crutches and then walking unassisted gave Kasinger enough confidence to start running on the New Prairie track team in the spring.

“I couldn’t stand not running,” he said. “My knee wasn’t fully healed yet, but I figured running in a straight line would be fine as long as I wasn’t making any cuts. As I kept getting better, I would go on runs with my brother, too.”

It wasn’t until workouts began this summer that Kasinger was fully cleared to resume all football activities. Almost a year had gone by since he tore his ACL, but finally, he was able to get back to what he loved most.

“One of the worst parts was going to those games and practices and not being able to do anything, just waiting around,” Kasinger said. “There were times where I’d get really upset, but my teammates really helped cheer me up throughout it all. Especially Hunter Whiteneck, Chase (Ketterer) and Ian (Skornog). Those guys were really big.”

No more waiting, no more rehab, no more pick-me-ups necessary. It was time to compete.

Just because Kasinger was on a fast track to playing varsity football prior to the injury, it didn’t mean he had a starting job locked down when he returned as a junior. In fact, he went into practice the week of the La Porte game in a position battle.

“You have to remember, Brandon missed a whole year of practices,” said New Prairie defensive coordinator Julio Cisneros. “So during the summer, Coach (Russ Radtke) would get on him, yelling, when he made a mistake. He missed a whole year of getting those mental mistakes out of the way, so he’s had to play catch-up. But Brandon is the type of kid that just gets motivated by that. He wants every rep he can so he can get better and catch up on what he’s missed.”

This mindset, a “relentless swagger” as Cisneros describes it, was most evident in the Cougars’ week of practice leading up to their Week 1 matchup.

Radtke is known for his catchphrase during practices that resembles a pre-Presidential Donald Trump.

“You’re fired!”

He yells this at his players fairly often. It’s angrily belted out when a starter makes a mistake in practice, giving the backup a chance to take reps with the first-stringers to see if they have what it takes to get promoted. This “next man up” mentality keeps a defense with just two locked-in starters on its toes, breeding competition every day.

Kasinger was right in the thick of it, vying for a starting spot at outside linebacker. He didn’t care how many times he heard “You’re fired!” He wasn’t coming out. Every time his backup tried to come in, Kasinger raised his voice and asserted himself using that relentless swagger, ordering his competition for the week to stay out.

“Yeah, there’s no way I was coming out of practice that week,” he said. “I needed as many reps as possible, plus I just really wanted to start against La Porte.”

Kasinger’s determination to play and to learn that week granted him the starting outside linebacker job against the Slicers, and he made the most of his first game action since tearing his ACL.

La Porte ran an outside sweep to Kasinger’s side in the first half, and all that relentlessness paid off. He read the play immediately due to the repetition of facing it in practice that week and made a beeline for the running back. Kasinger lowered his shoulder and with a booming crack, pinned the kid on his back five yards behind the line of scrimmage.

“Usually I’m a pat you on the back and tell you great job type of coach,” Cisneros said. “But man, I couldn’t help it there. I went crazy. I think we all did.”

Kasinger registered seven total tackles in the first half alone, and if it weren’t for Cisneros and the coaching staff giving the second-stringers some looks in the second half, who knows how many more tackles Kasinger would have made.

Seven tackles is an impressive performance for any player, let alone someone playing their first game in nearly two years following a year-long ACL rehabilitation process.

With that in mind, the coaching staff had a decision to make. After every game, their group meets with all the coaches from the opposing team to name a defensive player of the game. The winner of each receives a large, cheesy, MMA-esque championship belt as a token of their dominance that night.

“Usually it’s a tough decision for us,” Cisneros said. “We had Brandon with seven tackles, but we also had a few other guys with six, five, four… It was hard, but we came to a unanimous decision pretty quickly.”

After doing so, New Prairie’s coaches walked into the locker room to meet with the team. A few words about the Cougars’ blowout win commenced, followed by their big announcement: Kasinger, in his first game back from a devastating injury, was New Prairie’s defensive player of the game.

Before he could even pick up the belt, Kasinger’s teammates jumped to their feet and mobbed their resilient linebacker, taking selfies and constantly snapping pictures like his own personal paparazzi.

Even though it’s just a corny-looking belt celebrating one game of stellar play, this was so much more than that.

For Kasinger, it represents the same thing the long scar on the top of his right knee does. It serves as a metaphor and reminder for all the hard work he put in for 12 months. From having difficulty lifting his leg to making crowd-gasping hits in the backfield, this belt symbolized the growth Kasinger has made both mentally and physically in the last year.

It’s inspiring, motivating and meaningful. Simply put, it’s Brandon Kasinger.

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