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HHS' Ruder makes way back from neck injury


The only real memory Hays High School sophomore Payton Ruder has of the hit that ultimately ended his football career came from later watching film.  It happened on the 12th play of the Indians' Aug. 24 scrimmage at Lewis Field Stadium in preparation for their annual Maroon and Gold Kickoff a week later.

"I remember going in, and I remember seeing the guy I was going to hit and then I remember seeing his face right next to my face," Ruder said. "That's about it. I drove home after it happened and apparently I cleaned the pool and I mowed the yard. But I don't really remember it."

Nothing seemed wrong at the time. Neither Ruder nor the Hays High coaching staff thought anything of it. In fact, Ruder would go on to play all 62 plays of the scrimmage that morning.

But later in the day Ruder's neck was bothering him, so he asked his mother to get him an appointment with the chiropractor. Ruder thought all he needed was a simple neck adjustment, and he would be fine.

Only this wasn't the case. A visit to the chiropractor turned into a trip to the spinal surgeon in Hays, who refereed him to a neurological surgeon in Wichita, who then sent him to a sports medical specialist in Wichita. After numerous tests, MRIs, X-rays and CAT scans, it was determined Ruder had partially torn two muscles in his neck, suffered a severe concussion, and tore most of the ligaments holding the C1 and C2 vertebrae together.

"Basically they said I was lucky I wasn't paralyzed and that I could walk," Ruder said. "It was a crazy, freak thing. With the concussion and everything, I had a headache for four months straight. Then it finally went away after they put me on four different medications. I can't ever play football again and there is a possibility I won't be able to play basketball next year, either."

Ruder was on a half schedule at school most of the fall semester, usually going to class from noon to 3 p.m. It was around mid-November when the headaches finally went away, allowing him to return to the classroom full time. It was also around then Ruder was cleared to play golf, just about the only sport he will ever be able to competitively participate in again.

But as it happens, Ruder is exceptionally good at the sport.

"Golf has always been a big part of my life. I've been playing it since I was three," Ruder said. "But I was finally getting into football and really enjoying it. I was pretty successful in it. Then having that taken away, it's like, 'Well, I guess that wasn't meant to be.' I just need to really bear down and focus on golf as my main sport and hope that gets me somewhere."

Ruder was one of the Hays High's best golfers as a freshman. He was second on the team with a scoring average of 82.3 a round and, despite the injury, seems poised for an even better sophomore season.

While he struggled -- along with the rest of the team -- by shooting an 86 in the opening golf tournament of the season at McPherson on April 10, Ruder bounced back by leading the team with a 78 at Garden City on April 12, good for third place.

It has taken time, but the injury suffered in August is getting farther and farther out of mind for the sophomore.

"Even though he wasn't able to play a lot because of the injury --  it might have slowed him down a little bit --  I noticed that his demeanor is about the same," HHS golf coach Mark Watts said.

How far Ruder, and the rest of the Indians, have progressed since the McPherson tournament will be found out this week, when HHS competes in three tournaments in five days. First on the slate is the annual Bob Blazer Invitational, hosted by Hays High at Smoky Hill Country Club on Tuesday. Tee time is 1 p.m.

The tournament, named after Hays High's former coach, will include all five WAC schools, plus Salina South, Salina Central, Topeka West, Junction City, Goodland and tournament favorite Hutchinson.

Hays High also will compete at Dodge City on Thursday and Salina South on Friday.

But Tuesday's home meet is the most important, as not only will it give the Indians a chance to extend their lead in the WAC, but it will be a trial run for their regionals on May 19, which will also be held in Hays.

"I know coach's goals have always been to have all six guys in the top six in the WAC, and we are sitting 1-2-3 right now. As a team we are leading the WAC, and I feel pretty confident in my teammates," Ruder said. "I'm finally back into the swing of things. Things feel pretty good."