While playing football, Gophers redshirt freshman defensive end Alex Reigelsperger always knew there was a possibility that athletes can be seriously injured. He just never thought it could happen to him.
It was the first full-contact practice of the spring when it happened.
“It was just me and one of our running backs, and it was a play where our safety came on a blitz off the edge,” Reigelsperger said. “I kind of stood the running back up and was bringing him down, and our safety happened to just hit the side of my head.”
After he was down on the ground for some time, an ambulance rushed him off the field. Reigelsperger had cracked the C4 vertebrae in his neck and suffered a serious concussion.
“The first 24 hours I couldn’t feel anything or really move,” he said.
After some analysis, doctors told him that he must have cracked his C4 vertebrae while he was in high school and he was lucky he wasn’t paralyzed from the most recent hit he took.
Initially, Reigelsperger was made aware that he could likely play football again, it just wouldn’t be for this upcoming season. As he began to be inch closer to recovery and was almost out of his multiple-day stay at the hospital, he received some news that altered his life forever.
“The head neurosurgeon came in and told me that it would be in my best interest, if I wanted to be a full functioning adult, not to play again,” Reigelsperger said.
Reigelsperger, who was a redshirt his freshman year due to a torn labrum in his shoulder, was primed to have a role to help the team this year. However, after a lot of time thinking, he came to the conclusion to stop playing.
“I talked to [P.J.]Fleck about it and talked to myself,” Reigelsperger said. “I just realized it was in my best interest to be the best ... father and brother and husband and anything else later in life that I want to be [and] just not play.”
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Reigelsperger played football since he was 8 years old. He started with flag football, eventually moving on to tackle football. It was all he had ever known. However, every player eventually calls it a career at some point, whether it be a 20-year NFL player or a kid in middle school.
“You’re eventually going to have to hang your cleats up. It’s not something you expect your second year in college,” said Reigelsperger.
Devastating news like this can have an effect on one's mental state. Reigelsperger suffered from depression after making his decision not to play anymore, but he had a support system from his teammates, specifically Malcom Robinson, roommate Axel Ruschmeyer and the coaches. The culture Fleck and his staffed have instilled on the football program and its players were crucial for Reigelsperger’s wellbeing.
“[Defensive coordinator] Rossi and [defensive line coach] Panagos would call me three to four times a week to make sure I was doing okay,” Regielsperger said. “I feel like if this happened to me anywhere else it probably would have been a lot harder.”
Joan Gabel, the new president at the University of Minnesota, has highlighted plans to get students more help with their mental health, which Reigelsperger thinks is a good thing.
“People think just because we have free school, free food and free clothes that we don’t have mental health problems,” said Reigelsperger. “I just want people to understand that even though we’re athletes we’re still people at the end of the day.”
Now that his career on the field is over, Reigelsperger has been allowed to keep his scholarship in order to continue working toward his youth studies degree. He wants to help at-risk kids who have been in trouble with the law turn their lives around.
“A lot of us, including myself, was just one or two choices away from being in that predicament," Reigelsperger said. “Which is why I want to be a juvenile probation officer.”
One thing that Reigelsperger hasn’t yet decided is if he is going to stick around the game of football. The option for him to help the team, whether it be this year or the next, has been left open. He will miss one thing and one thing only when it comes to the sport.
“Winning,” said Reigelsperger. “It’s a lot more fun when you win.”
Even though he won’t be contributing to the team, he has confidence and high hopes for this Gophers football team.
“Nobody will say anything if they go 11-1 this year,” said Reigelsperger. “I could see them easily playing in the Big Ten Championship game.”