[This is my column in the Nov. 3 issue of The Commercial Review.]
He wasn’t going to play football as a freshman.
A three-sport athlete, he much prefers a baseball diamond to the gridiron.
More than four years later, Cole Stigleman is thankful he chose to play football.
“I’m so glad I didn’t (step away),” said Stigleman, a Jay County High School senior. “Football is an awesome sport.”
But after leaving West Jay Middle School after eighth grade, he thought about calling it quits.
“It is just crazy that I thought of even stopping playing,” he said.
This isn’t just about him making a life-changing decision to play. This is about how he became the most prolific runner in school history.
Stigleman didn’t register a carry through the first three games, and had six attempts in week four, a 48-12 loss to Adams Central.
The following week, he got his chance to shine. During the first half against Bluffton, junior Drew Huffman broke his collarbone, thrusting Stigleman into the limelight. He proceeded to rush 18 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yard TD in the fourth quarter that turned out to be the game-winning score in a 54-50 victory.
“Drew was a great football player,” Stigleman said. “He had a great passion for the game. Lot of credit to him. …
“I felt bad but I had to step up and help the other guys out.”
Stigleman followed that effort with 135 yards the next week against Woodlan, and rushed for 190 yards and two touchdowns against South Adams.
He eclipsed the century mark in rushing yards two more times (126 and 143 respectively) while finishing the year with 816 yards on 121 carries for an average of 6.7 yards.
In terms of touches and yards it was a down season for Stigleman, which he is quick to admit.
“The sophomore year was probably the year I didn’t have my best year,” he said.
He rushed 113 times for 666 yards and nine touchdowns.
Stigleman had 100 or more yards three times. He had 151 yards and a pair of touchdowns week two against Blackford, 101 yards and a pair of scores against Bluffton in week five and a season-high 158 yards with three TDs in a 64-8 win over Indianapolis Marshall in week eight.
“Every time I got the ball I had to do what I had to do,” he said.
While Stigleman led the team in rushing yards that year, senior Levi Hummel had the most carries with 126. Huffman had 84 carries for 641 yards and nine touchdowns.
Two years earlier Stigleman proved he had the athletic ability. He was a shifty back that tried to juke defenders instead of waiting for things to develop at the line of scrimmage and power through.
It was this season that he started transitioning to more of the latter, but still keeping his ability to move laterally around defenders in open space.
After a slow start to the season — he had two yards against Delta and 77 against Blackford — Stigleman took off for back-to-back games rushing for 125 or more yards. He ended the season with 156, 146 and 189 yards respectively in the final three games, tallying 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns on 158 carries.
“I love it,” he said. “I got the ball a lot, doing what I can do to help the team out.”
This season almost never happened.
Stigleman had a stress fracture in his lower spine he suffered playing baseball as a junior.
“I wasn’t really sure if I was going to play football because I wasn’t sure if my back was going to withstand a varsity football game,” he said.
But the rehab was quicker than expected, and Jay County coach Tim Millspaugh eased him into the season.
He made his senior debut in week four against Adams Central, catching two passes for 64 yards, but didn’t have a carry. The next week against Bluffton, he caught two more passes for 96 yards and a touchdown to go with his three carries for 20 yards. The following week, a 47-6 loss at Woodlan, he only had five yards.
Week seven at South Adams, as assistant coach Terry Robbins liked to say, “The deuce is loose.” (Stigleman’s jersey number is 2.)
He had 13 carries for 113 yards while adding 73 yards and a touchdown on six catches against the Starfires.
It was the first of six consecutive games with 100 or more rushing yards, including a career-high 218 on 24 carries against Heritage.
He added 163 yards on 37 carries (a career-high) in the sectional opener against Logansport, which allowed him to become the school’s career rushing leader. He surpassed the record of 3,066 set by 2015 graduate J.D. Mangas.
Stigleman tacked on 128 more Oct. 28 in a 9-6 loss to the Wayne Generals in the sectional semifinal, finishing the year with 787 yards on the season and 3,319 for his career.
Stigleman’s impact on the Patriots has been three-fold; he gives the offense a weapon no matter where he is on the field, he leads the underclassmen by example and his teammates enjoy blocking for him.
“I love it,” said classmate and guard Ethan Theurer. “I know he’s always going to make me right. If I give him any space he’s going to find it and get through it.
“It makes my job easier, honestly.”
Millspaugh feels fortunate Stigleman chose to put on the pads as a freshman.
“I don’t think there’s any question he’s been very important,” he said. “Any time you have a guy (other teams) have to be concerned about, that helps everybody out.
“He’s been fun to have on our football team.”
Had the three-sport star instead chosen to play two — or even one — in high school, Mangas might still be the school’s rushing leader. The “deuce is loose” could have referred to someone else.
But Stigleman stuck with it. He shined when he was thrust into the starting role, overcame a sophomore slump to emerge as a junior and broke a record as a senior.
“It is awesome,” he said. “To hold any record it is pretty sweet.
“It was a lot of hard work, especially coming into this season with an injury.”
He walked off the field a week ago with more rushing yards than anyone in school history.
It capped a career that almost didn’t happen.