Photo By Hillary Ehlen
Injuries happen in every sport. In football, especially, injuries seem to happen each and every snap whether we are conscious of it or not. Whether it’s serious or just a bump or bruise, injuries negatively impact what goes on in the field of play.
However many athletes, football players especially will note that sometimes injuries are a blessing in disguise. It tests the will of a person, it examines what kind of perseverance and drive a particular athlete has.
Aaron Mercadel’s drive and will to play the game of football was tested in 2018. After suffering a torn ACL in fall camp last season, Mercadel was forced to the sidelines for the entire 2018 campaign, one that culminated in another FCS national championship for North Dakota State.
Yet, rather than dwelling on the injury and feeling sorry for himself, Mercadel took ownership of his injury and his responsibility to the team. He could often be seen pacing the sidelines for North Dakota State, wearing a headset much like a coach would. Mercadel could also be seen encouraging and laughing with his fellow teammates every chance he got.
“It was a huge part. I think everything happens for a reason and I learned a lot being in that kind of coaching role. Instead of playing, I was able to see the game from a different lens,” Mercadel said. “Being back, I don’t take anything for granted, every snap is another opportunity to get better. I just take it one play at a time and do my best and have fun because you never know when it could be taken away from you.”
Mercadel was a valuable asset for North Dakota State on defense in 2017 as well as on special teams. The Oakland, California, native accumulated 24 tackles, two tackles for loss and forced a fumble in his sophomore season in 2017. He also made one sack for the Bison that season as well.
Unfortunately, he was unable to build on that stellar sophomore season due to the knee injury last year. Despite losing a season of competition, Mercadel still understands the importance of special teams and how it translates to success on defense.
“It’s just a part of the Bison tradition. You kind of earn your name, earn your keep on special teams and I think that gives you the confidence to play once you get your chance on offense and defense,” he said. “That confidence you get the first time you make a tackle on kickoff and the crowd stands up and cheering, that’s big for a young guy. It prepares you to mature faster and play those real defensive snaps and lock in and be mature enough to do it.”
For better or worse, the Bison have had several players who have torn their ACLs in recent years. However, those players provided Mercadel with several resources throughout his recovery.
“I talked to a lot of guys in Greg [Menard], Dillon [Radunz], Dan [Marlette], just guys that had torn their ACLs before. Just figuring out what to do for rehab, but the whole team backed me up,” he said. “Coaches, teammates, they all had my back and pushed me. With me being by myself and knowing that rehab is important and you got to get back. I took every step I could to be back 100 percent this season.”
The long road to recovery led to a huge payoff for Mercadel, who was granted a medical hardship by the NCAA before the season. Therefore, rather than being a senior in 2019, he will be a junior again. Mercadel will then play his senior year in 2020. For him, the news was exhilarating.
“It was really exciting. Knowing that I can spend one more year with my friends, my family, my teammates. I’ve made a family with Fargo being home for me now. It was really exciting and it meant the world to me to get that year back,” he said. “It was really hard for me so to get that year back and play football. Who wouldn’t want another year playing again?”
Now, in 2019, the Bison linebacking corp is as talented a group as any on the roster. Along with Mercadel, they also offer up Jabril and Jasir Cox, Jackson Hankey, Jaxon Brown and Mark Stumpf. With a new position coach in former Bison linebacker Grant Olson, Mercadel has enjoyed his time back on the field with the linebackers.
“Spring ball was really fun just getting to know coach Olson a lot. I knew about him, he was actually at Wyoming when I was getting recruited by them in high school. Knowing who he was and what he did to the program was a huge thing,” he said. “The linebackers we can learn a lot from him because on the technical side of things we have a lot of talent. The types of things he knows, once we add that to our game, we’re going to be a very talented group of people.”
Former linebackers coach and current head coach Matt Entz has high hopes for what the linebacking corp can do for Code Green in 2019. Yet, Entz is incredibly excited to see Mercadel back on the field as well. “He is an unbelievable person, great football player and we’re really excited about where he’s at right now,” Entz said. “He had a great summer with coach Kramer and has picked up from where he left off in 2017.”
So far, Mercadel has accumulated nine total tackles for the Bison through three games in 2019.
It was not easy for Aaron Mercadel to watch the 2018 season go by. While he was a part of the undefeated national championship team of last year, he would have much rather been playing than wearing a headset.
Nevertheless, his injury happened and it has since come and gone. Now, Mercadel has a new outlook on football, one that takes nothing for granted. Every snap, play and tackle is an opportunity to play the game that he loves and he has been granted an extra year to play that game.
In the end, that’s all that really matters to Aaron Mercadel.