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Injuries can cause change of plans

Jon Rufledt felt a little guilty when he sheepishly approached roommate Eric Castellano, asking to borrow his backpack for an upcoming college trip to South Dakota's Badlands.

Jon Rufledt felt a little guilty when he sheepishly approached roommate Eric Castellano, asking to borrow his backpack for an upcoming college trip to South Dakota's Badlands.

The two are outdoor education majors and football players at Minnesota Duluth, but Castellano won't make the trip because he injured his right knee during spring football drills on April 15.

In an ironic twist, last year Castellano borrowed Rufledt's hiking boots for a trip to Isle Royale National Park. Rufledt couldn't go because he injured a knee playing football the previous fall and then reaggravated it during rehab last spring.

"That request came back to get me,'' Castellano said with a laugh.

The Bulldogs' spring season culminates with their 33rd annual Maroon-White Game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Malosky Stadium, and Castellano plans to watch the game from the sideline -- while on crutches.

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"I know exactly what Eric's going through, and believe me, I'm not pumped about getting to use his pack,'' said Rufledt, a linebacker. "Eric has really put in his time, and it's just a heartbreak to see this happen. Spring ball is a time to just get football back in your mind because we have such a long offseason.''

To his credit, Castellano has maintained an upbeat outward appearance since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee after planting his foot awkwardly during a scrimmage two weeks ago. He has continued going to spring practices and has stayed involved with the team. In return, his teammates help him keep his spirits up.

Castellano is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound defensive back out of Luck, the same small Wisconsin town that produced versatile Bulldogs playmaker Cash Langeness and UMD linebacker Cory Erickson.

Castellano will be a senior next fall. He said depending on how the knee progresses, he will decide in the coming weeks whether he will forego surgery and try to get by with a knee brace next season. For many people, that option works fine, but everyday life is a lot different from the rigors and stress put on a knee during a football game.

"The next couple weeks are going to be decision time,'' Castellano said. "Nobody likes to get hurt, especially in spring ball, but it can happen at any time.

"We're not counting this season out just yet. It's been done before. We just have to see how I'm feeling.''

If Castellano chooses to have surgery, the lengthy recovery process could end his career at UMD. But he also could take a medical redshirt this fall and play in 2008 -- making for six years in the Bulldogs' program and a lot of time enrolled in school.

"It would probably just be a little more education,'' Castellano joked. "I'm not ready to be done.''

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Castellano has been biding his time as a backup at UMD since redshirting in 2003. He made just four tackles last season, but he was No. 1 on the Bulldogs' depth chart at cornerback going into spring drills after the graduation of UMD regulars Tim Garceau, Corey Hughes and Boloy Lokombo.

The demands placed on NCAA Division II football players often can make the commitment seem more like a job. Few people understand that as well as UMD coach Bubba Schweigert, who appreciates the efforts of players like Castellano who go through the yearly grind of early morning weightlifting and afternoon practices to increase their chances of playing regularly on Saturdays.

"We're going live in the spring, and it's unfortunate when you see something like that happen,'' Schweigert said. "He's a tough kid and a team guy, and that's what you need. The guys that like to be here and be part of a team -- those are the guys who are going to make a difference.''

Besides Castellano, receiver Brandan Anson (thumb) and defensive lineman Tyler Johnson (leg, ankle) won't play in Saturday's spring game. Offensive lineman Matt Horvath (ankle), defensive back Brandon Wood (ankle) and backup safety Ryan Bowlds (leg) are questionable.

"You want to get better as a team, but you just want to stay healthy, and I think that's the same for everybody during spring ball,'' Schweigert said. "We're going to try to stay smart with those guys.''

Rufledt, meanwhile, said his knee feels perfect. He was having an all-conference-caliber year in 2005 before going down with his injury. While it took some time to adjust to trusting his knee and wearing a knee brace, he got better as last season wore on and feels like it's no longer an issue. He is going to try to help his roommate Castellano cope with his injury.

"You go through so many different stages with your mindset, because it really is such a long recovery process, but you just have to try to stay positive,'' Rufledt said. "There'll definitely be some ups and downs, and I think that having me there will help him get through it.''

JON NOWACKI covers college football for the News Tribune. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at jnowacki@duluthnews.com .

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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