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WAVERLY — Fifteen months ago, the football career of Wartburg linebacker Rob Rottler appeared to have reached an unceremonious end.

After a promising 83-tackle campaign the year before, the former North Butler standout seemed poised for a breakout senior campaign entering 2016. But before he could even get onto the stat sheet, those high hopes had already been crushed.

In the second quarter of the season opener, a Monmouth College player was blocked into Rottler’s planted left leg. Feeling a pop, he went to the sideline fearing the worst.

That’s exactly what he got, as trainers were immediately able to see that he’d suffered a torn ACL, a diagnosis that was confirmed with an MRI the following day.

“I basically thought my career was over,” said Rottler, who was in line to graduate at the end of the school year.

Luckily for Rottler and the Knights, an academic stipulation the linebacker had initially been unaware of provided an opportunity to return to the field.

A science education major and aspiring high school biology teacher, Rottler was informed he could take additional classes that would qualify him for an All-Science Endorsement, which would allow him to teach any science class at the high school level.

Though excited about the career opportunities the endorsement would create, Rottler admits he had other reasons for taking it.

“Going out on that foot left a rotten taste in my mouth,” he said. I wanted to get back on the field and leave on a better foot.”

Mission accomplished.

Showing no ill-effects from the injury, Rottler was one of the most complete linebackers in the Iowa Conference in 2017, recording a league-best 116 tackles. His performance, which earned him a spot on the All-Conference First Team, is a big reason the 12-0 Knights find themselves in the Division III playoff quarterfinals.

Led by Rottler’s stout presence, Wartburg is allowing just 16.1 points per game. That’s over 10 points better than anyone else in the Iowa Conference and a 9.7 per-game improvement from last season’s disappointing 6-4 finish.

Aside from his production, Rottler’s leadership and football IQ have also drawn rave reviews from his coaching staff. As the Mike Linebacker, he is tasked with getting his teammates in the right position before the snap, and Head Coach Rick Willis says he’s proven more than capable of handling such a heavy responsibility.

“Not only is Rob a great football player, he also brings a lot of other really important attributes to the defense,” Willis said. “His energy and his leadership and his toughness. All those intangible things he’s brought have been just as important as his play on the field.”

This mental aspects of his game also helped Rottler clear another major hurdle on his way back to the field. When spring practices began, he admits he was nervous about testing the knee in high contact situations, but says those worries quickly went by the wayside as instinct took over.

“With an injury like that, it’s definitely something that was in the back of my mind at first,” he said “But nowadays, I just play how I would. It’s not something I think about.”

Rottler and the rest of the Knights have a stiff challenge ahead of them Saturday, when they travel to face fellow unbeaten Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The Titan offense ranks 10th nationally in scoring at 42 points per game and sports a rushing attack that averages 247.5 yards.

But after ending a two-year postseason drought, confidence remains high that these Knights can finally get the program through the Elite Eight round for the first time in four tries, with a lot of that optimism tied to the return of the steady force in the middle of the defense.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without him, that’s for sure,” Defensive Coordinator Chris Winter said. “I’m glad he came back, I’ll tell you that.”

The Knights and Titans kick off at noon Saturday in Oshkosh.

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