Working Through the Pain

Oct. 12, 2007

By Joe Nickell
Washington State Athletic Media Relations

It shouldn't hurt for 22-year-olds to get up in the morning.

But sometimes that is the reality for Cougar middle linebacker Chris Baltzer. Five knee surgeries in five years will certainly do that to a player.

Coming back from the first injury suffered as a junior at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore., probably seemed like no big deal. Baltzer helped lead his squad to the state championship, recording 17 tackles and an interception in the title game, and 152 tackles and 9.5 sacks that season. Sheldon went 15-0. However, four more surgeries took a toll on his body.

'When you have five knee surgeries, physically you are at a disadvantage,' Baltzer said. 'And I am at a disadvantage. I don't have the speed that I had before, and I was never blessed with great speed to begin with. I don't care what anyone says, when people say `You will come back stronger.' That's crazy.'

Thus began the cerebral expansion of Chris Baltzer.

'When you're on the field, especially with a team like USC, the only way for me to survive or be successful is to mentally be in the game and know certain things. There are little things that will give you an advantage. If you don't know what you're doing, you are going to play slow. I don't care how fast you are.'

When Baltzer came to WSU, he was one of the benefactors of information passed on from Cougar linebackers Will Derting and Al Genatone. They taught him how to prepare mentally and physically for college football. He now passes that information on to the younger Cougar players.

WSU Head Coach Bill Doba says that having Baltzer is like having another coach.

'He stands back there with me at practice, and tells me if (Greg) Trent is not lined up right or this guy is misaligned, or this guy should have hit the inside shoulder. He is going to make a great coach.'

And at this stage of his career, coaching is something Baltzer is seriously considering.

'I would like to say that I could have played beyond college, but that is so rare. Coaching is a way to stay in the game. I definitely have a passion for it. I don't want to be sitting in an office working nine to five and not be passionate about what I'm doing. So I think coaching is a good way for me to do that.'

While he believes coaching will be one of his passions, what he really wants to do is find that diamond in the rough.

'I want to go find those guys that people are overlooking. Derting is a great example. He went down as one of the greatest linebackers to play here and I think there was only one other school in Colorado looking at him. I want to find those types of guys that have the passion and want to do it the right way. Some of the guys who emerge are the guys who were overlooked, that might be an inch short or 20 pounds lighter.'

The longing to find a great player in someone no one thought twice about comes from a lack of being recruited himself. Despite phone calls from not just his own coaches, but coaches from the opposing high school sidelines, Baltzer's phone didn't ring. What got Baltzer to WSU was one of his high school teammates and closest friends, Cougar quarterback Alex Brink, telling the WSU coaching staff he had a guy who would be a great fit.

'I'm not even so sure that they were thinking that they were getting a player, but just a guy that was close to Alex so he had an easier transition,' Baltzer said. 'Then it turned out I could play a little bit, too.'

He could play, and he still can. Baltzer is currently second on the depth chart at middle linebacker. He could have gone to a smaller school, but says he didn't want to live with the regret of not trying to play at a higher level.

'I didn't want to wake up one day and be 40 somewhere, wishing I played Division I football.'

He won't have to wonder what it would have been like to play at the highest level college football has to offer, but will he regret playing through five knee surgeries?

'This was the first year that not playing crept in my head. It's so hard mentally. Hurting all day everyday is not fun, but running out of that tunnel and playing football with the guys I get to play with makes it worth while.'

If it would have happened just one week later, Baltzer's football career would have been over. At practice in the week leading up to WSU's game against Stanford in 2006, his senior season, he blew his knee out and needed surgery for the fifth time.

Given the opportunity to play again via a medical redshirt, Baltzer fought back just as he had done each of the previous four times. But before he looks to take the next step in his life, Baltzer will enjoy everything he has had the opportunity to be a part of at WSU.

'I told my mom the other day that two things make it worth it -- one, running out of that tunnel, because that is unmatched. I just ran out on 90,000 people against USC, the No. 1 team in the nation. Not many people can say that.

'Two, coming together to try to complete a common goal with guys that I never would have met coming from different backgrounds, upbringings and beliefs. I've made friends with people I never would have met without the game of football. And that is the best part.'

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