It was February of 2017 and inside Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, the Nebraska state wrestling championships were reaching their pinnacle. Millard North Junior Brandon Eastlack entered the tournament ranked second in Class A at heavyweight. But, a loss in the second round to top-ranked eventual state champion Lee Herrington of Kearney put Eastlack on the consolation side. A gold was out of reach, but a bronze medal was still looking possible, perhaps probable. One minute into his consolation semifinal match, something went terribly wrong.
“That was probably the worst thing I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.
As Eastlack’s opponent tried for a trip, Eastlack’s right knee buckled. He would not finish the match or the tournament. His hopes for a bronze medal: dashed. His knee: shredded. His athletic future: uncertain.
Eastlack’s injury was almost as bad as it gets: torn ACL, MCL and meniscus. The road back would be arduous. There was no time to waste.
Initial x-rays showed damage, but it required an MRI to reveal the full extent of the injury. In the two weeks between x-ray and MRI, Eastlack began rehab. Physical therapy started before the complete diagnosis. The MRI confirmed that surgery was necessary.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Millard North head coach Fred Petito.
Tough might be an understatement. Eastlack continued physical therapy right up to his surgery date, stopping only to go under the knife. He needed to be ready for his senior football season. Eastlack’s true passion lies on the gridiron, and he hopes to continue playing in college. A few schools, including the University of Iowa, have taken looks at him as a defensive lineman. But without a senior film and considering the injury, taking the season off wouldn’t be an option. According to his head coach, the injury alone has scared some collegiate coaches away.
“Somebody is going to get a steal on him,” Petito said. “He’s a real solid player.”
Getting back in time to make it happen meant something few are capable of enduring.
“Straight hell,” Eastlack said of the rehab process. “Just how weak it (the knee) is, it’s just awful.”
After three months, Eastlack was running again. His improvement meant he might be ready to play, but initial estimates had him returning in week seven to face Lincoln Northeast. A recovery from a major knee injury in only seven months would have been remarkable.
Eastlack wasn’t satisfied with the time table. He pushed himself, living up to his coach’s description as a good, hard-working kid.
He played in week three, a mere 202 days after blowing out his knee.
“I told him, you’re kind of a genetic freak here,” Petito said.
Millard North’s first two games of the season had turned out poorly. They were soundly beaten in their season opener 37-14 by Omaha North, and blasted by crosstown rival Millard West 49-16 in week two.
“It hurt a lot,” Eastlack said. “I hated just standing there and watching my team take a beating like that.”
His team hated it, too. Petito knows what a disruptive force Eastlack can be when he’s confident in his abilities.
“If they don’t put two (blockers) on him, it’s not going to be their best interest,” Petito said. “He wins his one-on-one battles.”
It is perhaps only a small coincidence that Millard North won their first game of the season the first time Eastlack faced live game action. Though his participation may have been limited, there’s something to be said for having a senior, three-year contributor on your defensive line.
“Week in and week out, he’s improving,” Petito said. “What it’s done for our kids, that’s a lot of confidence.”
Confidence has led to wins for the Mustangs. They’ve gone 5-2 since Eastlack’s return, and ride a three-game winning streak into the playoffs.
Eastlack may not see the wrestling mat again. He says it’s “iffy.” His passion for football and desire to compete at the next level give him pause about wrestling as a senior. He may never get the hardware from the state tournament, but there’s plenty left in his football career.
“I just want to be out there putting a beating on the other team.”
Watch Brandon Eastlack as Millard North takes on Omaha Burke Friday 10/27 at 7:00 pm CT on YurView or click here and watch it streaming live.