'Heart Of A Lion'

Injured athlete returns to action

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If 17-year-old Ben Krieger went searching for a personal motto, he might choose "Tough times don't last, tough people do."

Once a highly promising eighth-grade football player who helped his team cap an undefeated season with a White Mountain League championship, Krieger was sidelined his freshman, sophomore and junior years at Payson High with both knee and shoulder injuries.

He's struggled through four extensive surgeries trying to regain the form that he hoped would someday lead to a college athletic scholarship.

Along the path of adversity that would send most teenagers reeling, his most depressing moments occurred last November at Mesa College.

Watching from the stands as his former teammates polished off an undefeated state championship with a win over Blue Ridge was tough, he said.

Since elementary school, Krieger had looked forward to the days when he would be on the field contributing his fair share to the Longhorn gridiron cause.

His mother, Rita, is all too aware of the agony her son has faced. "He has the heart of a lion," she said.

Refusing to fold under the trials and pressures of rehabilitation, Krieger -- now 6 foot, 210 pounds -- is rapidly regaining his athletic prowess.

"My knee is back to about 90 percent now. I'll be ready to go soon," he says.

Tapping football as his favorite sport, the soon-to-be PHS senior plans a return to the Longhorn team when drills begin in early August.

His goal, he says, is to help the Longhorns win a second consecutive state crown and be allowed to relish the golden championship moments he was denied last season.

If he has his druthers, he'd like to play the defensive end position he excelled at as a middle school and freshman player.

A standout season might also earn him the college football scholarship that only a year ago seemed impossible.

A budding star
After starring at both fullback and defensive end on the Rim Country Middle School 7th and 8th grade football team, Krieger -- as a freshman in 1996 -- was looking forward to another stellar season.

But, in the third game of the campaign, his gridiron dreams were wiped away by a dislocated shoulder that required surgery.

"I had a torn rotator cuff," he said.
His teammates, most of whom he had played alongside since elementary school, went on to post an undefeated season.

After an extensive rehabilitation program that included plenty of weight training to strengthen his upper body, he returned to the Horn football team the following season.

The jayvees continued the winning ways they had first begun at RCMS, and Krieger was playing a prominent role as a wingback, defensive end and punter.

Three games into the campaign, against Cactus Shadows, Krieger was called upon to punt after an offensive drive stalled.

In punt formation, the long snap from center went awry and Krieger scrambled to scoop up the loose ball before setting sail around end, hoping to pick up a few yards.

At first, it appeared he would go the distance for a score, but only yards away from the goal line he was double teamed, high and low, by a pair of Cactus defenders.

Just seconds after he was pummeled to the turf, Krieger knew he had been injured.

His knee absorbed the blunt force of the tackle, and after withering in pain, he had to be carried off the field.

An examination and MRI revealed he had suffered a torn ligament which would require arthriscopic surgery.

Once again, his promising football season had come to a screeching halt.

Early in the week after the injury, Krieger underwent surgery to repair the damage.

But something wasn't right, his mother said. "They went in to scope it and found it was too far gone to just clean."

A complete surgery was scheduled and doctors inserted screws to hold the ligament in place.

Today, his knee sports a 5-inch long scar as a grim reminder of the injury.

Believing everything was okay, Krieger undertook a rigorous rehabilitation program hoping to soon return to sports.

But months into the rehabilitation, the teenager still couldn't rid himself of the constant feeling that the knee wasn't quite right. He was in pain and said his knee often felt as if it wasn't stable."We just thought it was in his mind. He was okay," said his father, Norman.

Examinations discovered no further damage but doctors continued to search for answers to the teenager's concerns.

Finally, physicians uncovered the cause -- the screws had worked loose in the knee and the ligament was again unattached. Another surgery was required to correct the malady.

"I was real depressed. Three knee surgeries in four months -- I didn't think I'd ever play (football) again," said Krieger.

On to track and field
All the while Krieger was suffering through the agony of surgery and rehabilitation, he refused to give up on his athletic dreams.

Unable to play either football or his second favorite sport -- baseball --he took up the shot- put under the urgings of former Tonto Apache track and field coach Billy Joe Winchester.

Krieger adopted to his new athletic endeavor quickly, winning meet after meet as the Tonto Apache team traversed the country competing against other club teams.

As the Region 10 shot-put champion in the Young Men's (15-17 years) competition last season, Krieger earned a berth in the USA National Championships held in Seattle. There, he finished 12th with a heave of 44 feet, 6 inches.

Early this season, he returned to the Tonto Apache team and recently won the Arizona State championship for his age group with a throw of 48 feet, 2 inches.

The win qualifies him for another Region 10 championship which will be contested July 14 to 17, in Provo, Utah.

To win there, Krieger predicts he'll have to uncork a throw over 50 feet.

A victory in Provo would nail down Krieger's second successive trip to the national championships.

Krieger's mother can only shake her head, admiring her son's resolve to continue in athletics. "Rather than focus on the loss of his two favorite sports (football and baseball), he became an excellent athlete in another division of sports. He just doesn't give up," she said.

Where to now?
With his senior season just around the corner, Krieger has one final shot at posting a successful prep football career. He also plans to try out for the Longhorn track and field team next spring.

"My knee's still not perfect, but I'm ready to go. It (playing football again) has been my goal -- I can't give up on it."

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