Nick Lanners' infectious smile, long a part of Royalton football, has been absent from the program since the middle of July.
A Royals assistant coach, he was injured when his vehicle was rear-ended at a stoplight when he was on his way to work as a corrections officer. He is paralyzed below his chest.
"We were shocked, in disbelief," said Royalton coach Jamie Morford, who coached Lanners when he was quarterback of the Royals his senior year in 2005. "He is more of a brother to me, that's how close our friendship has become."
The Royals are ranked eighth in Class 2A, but they hit a bump Saturday, losing 32-6 at Sauk Centre and falling to 3-1.
Lanners, 35, is dealing with a severe fracture of his C5 vertebrae. He was in St. Cloud Hospital for 56 days before being transferred to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
"We got outside a handful of times in just the first weekend down here, even doing some therapy/stretching sessions outside," Heather, his wife, wrote Monday on the family's Caring Bridge site. "Grayson and Emery [their children] have been doing well, they are enjoying school. We are able to call/FaceTime them every night. I was able to go home this past weekend to spend some time with them. I needed that so much. Next will be getting them down here to see Nick."
Morford drummed up support for Lanners and his family. A "Turn on the Lights for Nick" night at high school football fields throughout Minnesota was organized. It was reminiscent of the "Be The Light" night held for high school athletes during the COVID pandemic in 2020.
"This whole thing has been so hard on the whole community," Morford said. "I can't imagine how hard it has been for Heather, the kids and his family."
There has been a livestock auction with proceeds going to the family, an Old Bats Tournament and split-the-pot events held at both home and road games. One split-the-pot winner donated the winnings to the family, too.
"Folks we don't know, rival teams have been supportive," Morford said. "We have heard from people in Blue Earth, Grands Rapids and Bemidji. All over the state."
A GoFundMe site was established by Morford and assistant coach Joel Swenson to help with costs of Lanners' recovery. The goal was to raise $11,000 because No. 11 was Lanners' jersey number when he played for Royalton. Donations have eclipsed $60,000.
"The outpouring of support has been amazing," Morford said. "It's been unbelievable."
Wristbands and T-shirts are marked with #LannersStrong. The players have an "NL" decal on their helmets that serves as a daily reminder. Lanners would not approve.
"He has never liked social media," Morford said. "Nick would never want anything to be about him. That's not the kind of person he is."
As a player, Lanners became a quarterback after first playing receiver and defensive back.
"He was a very good player for us, a feisty player," Morford said. "He wasn't afraid to take a hit."
Lanners became a member of Morford's coaching staff in 2011. He had served as a volunteer coach previously.
"Nick is a players' coach," Morford said. "He is a father figure when kids need to be held accountable. He is a brother figure when they need to be lifted up. He is a coach when he knows they can do better. He is very supportive."
Now the support comes back.
"He might not like what we are doing for him, but behind closed doors he would be very appreciative," Morford said. "He would want to thank everybody for their outpouring of support. He is Royalton football."
In a ceremony Friday, Hutchinson's football facility was named Rostberg Stadium in honor of the longtime father-son coaching tandem Grady and Andy. They have guided the program for more than 50 years.
In 29 seasons, Grady Rostberg accumulated a career record of 250-63-1. The Tigers won state championships in 1983, 1984 and 1988 under his guidance. He still serves as an assistant coach for Andy, who replaced his father in 1999. He is 208-54 in his career and has directed the Tigers to two state titles.
Hutchinson, Class 4A defending champion and ranked No. 1, lost 24-22 to Becker after the pregame ceremony, falling to 3-1.
Inside the numbers
0:17: Seconds remaining when Cooper sophomore running back Randy Smythe scored on a 5-yard dash, capping a 21-point fourth quarter for the Hawks in a 33-26 come-from-behind victory over Holy Angels.
3: Shutouts by Class 3A, No. 2 Esko in its first four games. The Eskomos have yielded only six points this season.
11:44: Time on the scoreboard clock after Woodbury junior Quentin Cobb-Butler spent 16 seconds returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against Burnsville. He ran 36 yards with an interception for another score. The Class 6A, No. 7 Royals won their fourth consecutive game, 20-7.
74: Points scored by Dawson-Boyd while shutting out Lac qui Parle Valley.
92: Yardage on junior Isaiah Jones' interception return for a touchdown, Eastview's lone score in a 34-7 loss to White Bear Lake.
290: Rushing yards for senior Ethan Carrier of Detroit Lakes on 10 carries in a 49-6 triumph over Perham in the Battle for the Paddle. Carrier, who has committed to playing for the Gophers, scored three touchdowns, on runs of 13, 79 and 87 yards.
322: Rushing yards by Lakeville South senior running back Carson Hansen, his best total of the season, in a 43-21 victory over Farmington. Hansen, committed to Iowa State, carried 23 times and scored four touchdowns, on runs 2, 25, 41 and 64 yards.
335: Rushing yards on 22 carries by Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted senior Collin Boese in a 42-12 triumph over Holdingford. Boese scored five touchdowns.