Trevor Wikre sacrifices finger to keep playing football

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Trevor Wikre felt something funny inside his right lineman's glove. Squishy, like wet popcorn. The athletic tape had come loose, he figured. He ran another practice play, but it still felt wrong, so he stripped off his glove and saw a shard of bone where the top of his right pinkie used to be. The rest of the finger hung at a 45-degree angle, like a Popsicle sliding off the stick. It was then that Wikre, a senior right guard for Division II Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., realized what had happened: While blocking for a bootleg his 280 pounds had gone one way and his finger, hooked in a teammate's jersey, had gone the other.

Severe dislocation, said the trainer. Going to need surgery, said the orthopedic surgeon. Can I practice tomorrow? asked Wikre.

The surgeon grimaced. Six months recovery time, he said. Which for Wikre meant the end of his career -- and with Mesa State undefeated in conference, no less.

Before you condemn what this 21-year-old did next -- and plenty of people have in the last two weeks -- you need to understand who he is. Since fourth grade Wikre has been playing football. "Living it, really," says his fiancée, Traci Young. From Pop Warner through Berthoud (Colo.) High and college, he never missed a game. Banged up his knee once and had the trainer fit him with a makeshift brace at halftime. Got the flu once and vomited between offensive series.

The field is where Wikre says he feels most comfortable, where "time slows down" and he finds beauty "in a perfect pass play or a running back hitting a hole." He's a bear of a man, with meat slab arms and a pale shaved head underlined by a bristly beard, but his voice goes soft when discussing his teammates. To him they're brothers, family. Says senior quarterback Phil Vigil, "He's a guy who's going to be there for you if your dad dies, and he'll be there if you're in a fight."

Wikre would often tell the guys he'd take a bullet for them, and the way he would say it -- dead earnest, eyes unwavering -- it wasn't the least bit hokey. And so he didn't even wait for the surgeon to finish speaking. "Cut it off," Wikre said. "It's just a pinkie."

Cut it off? The surgeon told him not to be dramatic. Wikre told him to lop off the dang finger already, he had a game on Saturday. The surgeon reluctantly acquiesced, allowing the surgical option because there was the possibility of arthritis and other medical complications. Wikre signed a waiver, and off came the pinkie's top two joints. "This team is too good, and there's too much love," says Wikre. "There was no way I was missing out."

He never meant it as a statement on the importance of sports, but it became one. Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel wrote about it, then the AP picked it up, then national sports talk radio. Some callers denounced him as a hulking example of misplaced priorities. Others held him up as a model of old school play. A writer from New York called, wanting him to take potshots at pro athletes who lacked commitment, but that's not Wikre's style. His professors told him he'd regret his decision; fellow students told him he was crazy. Meanwhile, Young read the message boards and blogs and became incensed: They don't understand. Who are they to judge? But Wikre just laughed. After all, some of it was funny -- the requests for high fours from his teammates, the new nicknames (Stubs, Fantastic Four), the jokes that he should now get 10% fewer holding calls.

In fact Wikre considers himself lucky: He got to choose; most athletes don't. One day they're playing power forward, the next they're laid up with a career-ending torn ACL. But he made his deal, and though he missed one game, he considers it a bargain. O.K., he can't reach the P key on the keyboard, and he'll never grip a golf club quite right. So what? Have you ever had a group of teammates for whom you'd even consider making such a sacrifice? Do you know what it means to have that feeling?

Last week, six days after the injury, Wikre was back at practice, amped as ever. Dismiss football as "just sports" if you like, but try asking former college athletes -- any level, not just Division I -- about their playing days and see if they don't admit to treasuring the memories more each year, carefully lifting them from some internal drawer to be revisited as waistlines expand, knees stiffen and life presses on. It is a rare thing for a 21-year-old to understand, in the surge of the moment, how indelible the games of his youth will eventually be.

So when it comes to the question of regret for Wikre, there's no question at all. "If I had left it on," he says, "I know I would've regretted that the rest of my life."