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Maddox’s Miracle: How a tackle likely saved a Gothenburg man’s life

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) – Sophomore football player Maddox Rickertsen’s days are filled with football. In the spring, it’s all about 6 a.m. workouts and Maddox has never been more grateful to be in the gym.

“I started playing football when I was in third grade. My dad was my coach from third grade to seventh grade. He kind of taught me everything I know,” Maddox said. “And I’ve played all positions running back line quarterback…. just loved it ever since.”

A noisy practice is a different environment than the quiet hospital room. That’s a place the 20-year-old knows well.

At the end of September, Concordia University-Nebraska was facing off with their GPAC rival, Briar Cliff. The Bulldogs had lined up for a punt.

“I was part of like, the wall and some big guy came running through the hole. And I just tried to step up and hit him and he just kind of ran right through me,” Maddox remembered. “And next thing I know, I just, I mean, I don’t really remember the play very well. I just looked up and saw that they were scoring on the other end and went over to the sideline and asked one of my teammates what happened. And he just told me not he just kind of told me not to feel bad. So I figured it was my fault.”

His mom, Julie Rickertsen, was in the stands.

“I realized that it was a really hard hit. And so I just kind of kept watching Maddox. And I thought, well, if something’s wrong, like really wrong, then surely I’ll notice, or I’ll see it, but it did kind of take the wind out of me a little bit,” Julie said. “The crowd kind of did the “oooh” feeling… And he just got right up and went to the sideline. And I thought, ‘Oh, well, maybe he’s fine?’”

Briar Cliff scored off the blocked punt. Concordia still had the lead. Despite what Maddox thought were some broken ribs he wanted to get back in the game.

“It’s not uncommon to have to take their helmets from them,” Concordia’s Head Coach Patrick Daberkow said. “They just they want to play.”

Coach Daberkow didn’t let Maddox back in the game. Despite the punt-return for a touchdown, Concordia eked out a win. That weekend, Maddox took it easy; but at practice on Monday, he knew something wasn’t right.

“He had called me, and I think I was at work,” Luke Rickertsen, Maddox’s dad, remembered. “And the first thing he said was, ‘Don’t tell mom, but I think I need to go to the emergency room because I just don’t feel good.’”

Later at the ER, doctors ran tests. Maddox was wrong, he had no broken ribs. The doctors thought maybe he had some kind of internal bruise. They gave him some medicine and told him to come back if things didn’t start feeling better.

A week later, things were not feeling better.

Maddox had been passing blood, and it hadn’t slowed down. When he returned to the hospital the next week, the doctor decided to try a colonoscopy. This time, Julie accompanied Maddox to Memorial Hospital, in Seward.

“Dr. Ketner comes in and he actually gets down on his knees like stands by the bed like face to face, you know,” Julie said. “It was then I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t your everything-looks-good talk. This is your something’s-very-wrong talk.’”

The results were in.

Dr. J.B. Ketner estimated there was a six-centimeter tumor in Maddox’s colon. It was one of the largest he’d seen on a person so young.

The tumor needed to be removed. Maddox was looking at possibly cutting out part of his colon.

Football was over for him, likely for forever.

Julie and Maddox went to meet with Coach Daberkow. He had a Bible verse ready for Maddox after the procedure.

Their meeting was full of emotion.

“Not knowing what to tell your kid, but having somebody that he looks up to like his coach and stuff, kind of sit with him. And that was, that was a really big deal to us,” Julie said.

Maddox had been feeling sick for a while prior to the hit. He’d been throwing up and losing weight, but he figured it was just a bug being passed around through the team, and that he was adjusting to living in a dorm again.

“I just wasn’t feeling right,” Maddox said. “I was just kind of losing weight, I felt weak. And that was two, three weeks leading up to when I got hit. So when I did get hit, I was probably 20 pounds less than I was three weeks before… A lot of people had been sick. I remember the two other tight ends and me missed a bunch of practices that week. Because they were sick.”

Maddox was referred to UNMC where they would decide what to do about his tumor.

Dr. Sean Langenfeld got Maddox’s file and decided he wanted to do another colonoscopy to get a better look at the tumor. After the procedure, Julie said Dr. Langenfeld came into the room and looked “giddy.”

“I did end up doing what’s called an endoscopic mucosal resection and removed the tumor. We were able to remove the entire thing,” Dr. Langenfeld said.

The Rickertsens were thrilled. The thing that was harming their child was out of his body. It felt like they could take a breath, but the journey wasn’t over there.

The tumor was sent to pathology.

“We want to know how the tumor behaves under a microscope,” Dr. Langenfeld explained. “Specifically, we want to know if it’s cancer, or if it’s early enough where it hasn’t had a chance to turn into colon cancer yet.”

The science estimates that a tumor the size of Maddox’s has a 15-30% likelihood of already being cancerous.

“A lot of stars aligned for us to discover a tumor before it’s had a chance to cause major problems in someone that age,” Dr. Langenfeld said.

The Rickertsens held their breath as they learned the test results.

“Thankfully, he fell into the second category. It came back as tubular adenoma,” Dr. Langenfeld said. “Tubular adenoma is a fancy way of saying a pre-cancerous polyp. So that’s the best-case scenario for him.”

A hard tackle in a football game led doctors to about an egg-sized tumor in Maddox Rickertsen’s colon.(Madison Pitsch)

“This story ends a lot differently for most 20-year-olds that develop a colon tumor.”

These days, Maddox is on the road to recovery. It took a while to even keep food down, and gaining back the lost weight took even longer.

Nobody would ever know just months ago he wasn’t the strong, healthy 20-year-old he is today.

While Maddox gets back to football, Julie is excited to see him on the field, but there’s something else she’s looking forward to even more.

“He is determined to use this for good,” she said. “Not just in football., I really hope he gets to be back on the field and I hope he stays healthy. And you know, I hope that his scope in April is clean and that we get to just move forward. But I just can’t wait to see what he gets to do as a person in the lives that he gets to influence because of this.”

Maddox says, he has one person to thank for setting him down this path.

“The surgeon said that they didn’t really don’t start giving colonoscopies till you’re 45 or 50. So I don’t know if I ever would have known,” Maddox said. “I don’t know if I would even be around by then or what. So, yeah, number 28 for Briar Cliff saved my life in a way I guess.”

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