When Travis Williams injured his knee Sept. 6 in a football game at Lake Central, the first familiar face the Portage senior saw as they carted him off the field was his wrestling coach, Leroy Vega.
"I asked him if he was OK and he said, 'I'll be ready,'" Vega recalled.
Within a few weeks, Williams learned that the injury he initially thought was just a hyperextension was actually a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The more dire diagnosis didn't alter his promise to Vega.
"There was never a doubt in my mind," Williams said. "Wrestling's become a really important part of life. I absolutely love the sport. It's taught me a lot of stuff I'll need as I get older. Coach Vega has talked before about how when we move on from here, days like these will help us. The position I'm in, I have to play the hand that was dealt to me. I don't have another go-round."
The decision meant Williams would put off surgery until late February. That's after the state finals, where the Indians' 220-pounder plans to, one, participate, and two, earn a medal.
"I have the same goal as everyone else in the room," he said. "To win a state championship."
To that end, Williams began rehabilitation as soon as he could after the injury with a focus on strengthening the rest of his knee to gain what stability he could in the absence of the ACL.
"I'm a coach, but I'm a parent, too," Vega said. "I wanted to leave it up to Travis. It's a decision he'll have to live with. We all know our own bodies. It all came down to what he can do. If he's going to do it, we're going to go full force, do whatever we can. I could tell in his eyes that he really wants it."
By late October, Williams had progressed enough to be medically released to wrestle. He wears a brace, but it's largely for peace of mind.
"I feel better with it on," he said. "I have no setbacks at all. (My knee) feels just as strong as the other. Honestly, I don't even think about it. I led with my right leg before and I still do. The technique I usually go with, I haven't changed at all."
Vega had a teammate at Minnesota place third in the NCAA tournament on a torn ACL, but he remains amazed by Williams' recovery.
"He's gotten in a couple scrambles and we're like, 'Are you OK?'" Vega said. "It's kind of weird. He's come out stronger than he's ever been.
"It's made him really focused. It's making him concentrate better. He's more aware of his surroundings, more aware of his body. I hate to say the injury made him want it more, but I think it's opened his eyes. It's made him realize that this can be taken away. He's stepped up and become a leader."
Williams qualified for semistate as a junior, but was wildly inconsistent. He was capable of wins like his upset over Franklin's Connor Tolley, who placed fourth at state, as well as losses to inferior opponents.
"Most look at (the injury) as a negative experience," Williams said. "I've come out on the positive side. I'm never going to use it as a crutch. I'm not going to make any excuses all season. I'm just going to go all out and give it everything I can. I've got better cardio than any other wrestler I'll face. Why not use it?"
Vega's goals for Williams haven't changed since that night at L.C.
"We expect a lot of big things of Travis and he expects a lot of himself," he said. "We look for him to be wrestling Friday night at the state finals. He's at that level to be a state qualifier, a state placer."