He was the quarterback, a two-way starter and leader of a team with a real shot to win a state championship this year.
He was prepared mentally and physically and knew the playbook inside and out.
He made The List, the preseason publication in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that featured the top football players in the area.
Months of anticipation became a reality when the Booneville Bearcats took the field on Aug. 24 against the Clarksville Panthers. But on Booneville’s third series of the game, all the successes Brandon Ulmer had dreamed about this season were shattered by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Injuries are a common occurrence in sports, especially football, which is still a physically demanding game. But to have your senior year ripped away from you at the outset appears particularly cruel and painful.
Except Brandon Ulmer doesn’t see it that way. You won’t find this Bearcat feeling sorry for himself or raising his fist toward the sky shouting complaints.
“It was tough at first knowing my senior season was over and that I wouldn’t be playing football again for the rest of my life,” Ulmer said. “But things happen for a reason and maybe this is God’s plan. It could have been worse. It could’ve been a hard hit that left me paralyzed. I think this was His way of protecting me, protecting me so I can go live the rest of my life.”
Ulmer is an all-around athlete who’ll eventually see the field again as a baseball player at Arkansas State. He’s talked with ASU coach Tommy Raffo, who reassured Ulmer he has a place with the Red Wolves after high school.
“(Raffo) told me to stay strong,” Ulmer said. “He’s seen my work ethic. He knows I’m going to recover from this.”
Ulmer’s was a non-contact injury where his knee buckled after he attempted to cut up, then outside on a mid-line option play. He was whisked away to the sideline for evaluation and an MRI days later confirmed the severity of the injury.
“They say you can hear a pop on an injury like that, but it sounded more to me like leather ripping,” Ulmer said.
Ulmer is undergoing physical therapy three times a week and he’ll have surgery in three weeks. Although his football career is over, his career as a Booneville Bearcat is not.
Ulmer still attends practices and games with the support of a crutch that helps him get around, and his presence in the locker room is still strong.
“Anytime you lose a three-year starter and an all-state quarterback, obviously, that’s going to set you back,” Booneville coach Scott Hyatt said. “Being a coach’s kid, he has been around our program since he could walk. We may lose his on-the-field presence, but his leadership will continue. This senior bunch is close. He will have their back, just like they will have his.”
Ulmer said nothing could tear him away from his senior classmates, who he’s led in all sports since the boys were in the fourth grade. His presence will also be particularly helpful to junior Evan Schlinker, who has taken over at quarterback for the Bearcats.
Booneville moved to 3-0 Friday when the Bearcats held on for a 28-26 victory over Pottsville.
“(Schlinker) was a little shaky at first, but he’s gotten better,” said Ulmer, who passed for 810 yards and rushed for 762 yards as a junior. “I’ve kind of had him under my wing for a while and I’m giving him some tips on how to play quarterback. The main thing, he’s got to be the leader and play with confidence. He’ll be all right.”
Ulmer will be all right, as well. You can hear it in his voice and see it in his actions. He has every right to be angry, but he chooses instead to remain positive and do everything he can to help his team.
He is an inspiration to those who’ve been dealt a blow and are asking themselves how they will move forward. His message is clear: Your goals can change, but your attitude and leadership qualities should not.
Rick Fires can be reached at rfires@ nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWARick.