FARGO-Ellendale-Edgeley-Kulm junior running back Clayton Grueneich was limping late in the third quarter of the North Dakota Class 1A state championship football game against Des Lacs-Burlington on Friday, Nov. 11. He never stopped limping. And he never stopped playing, leading E-E-K to a 42-20 win and a state title in the Fargodome.
"It's the state championship," Grueneich said, when asked why he went back in the game despite limping. "This doesn't come around every day. You got to push through it. It'll hurt tomorrow morning, but it feels a heck of a lot better to be a state champion."
On June 21, Grueneich was in a bad rollover accident with his best friend and teammate Walker Bruns. Months of physical therapy on his two ankles helped Grueneich get to play football this season, but a broken vertebrae held Bruns out for his junior season.
A sore ankle wasn't keeping Grueneich from being on the field. On the sideline was a reminder of where the rollover crash could have put him.
"I love seeing him (Bruns) on the sidelines, but I wish he could be out there," Grueneich said. "I'm just happy he's here today."
Grueneich rushed for 343 yards and five touchdowns on 36 carries Friday.
"He runs flat-out hard," E-E-K coach Jon Schiele said. "He just has such good vision, good balance, strength. He's a very determined runner. You give him the ball and he's going to get yards for you."
DL-B struck first when Dylan Schestler found Joshua Knutson for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 4 minutes, 17 seconds left in the first quarter. E-E-K answered on the ensuing drive, marching 96 yards in less than four minutes, capping the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run from Grueneich to take a 7-6 lead.
DL-B fumbled on the first play of the ensuing drive and four plays later, E-E-K made it 13-6 on a 3-yard touchdown run from Cole Goehring. DL-B had a bad snap on a punt attempt on the following drive that put the punter's knee on the turf, giving E-E-K the ball at the DL-B 3. Grueneich took it in on the first play to put E-E-K up 21-6.
DL-B would score on its next two possessions to cut the lead to 21-20 with 2:52 left in the half, but E-E-K struck again with a 3-yard touchdown run from Grueneich with 11 seconds left in the half to push the lead to 28-20 at the break.
"This is complete happiness, joy, whatever you want to say. It's been a wild ride for four years building this from where we started to where we are now," Schiele said.
Three plays after visibly limping in the third quarter, Grueneich was running into the end zone on a 5-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 to put E-E-K up 35-20 with 3:32 left in the third. On the ensuing DL-B drive, he was helping stuff a fourth-and-1 attempt at the E-E-K 22. His 73-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth sealed a state title.
On the final kneel down, there was Bruns, getting to be on the field for the first time in his junior season.
"Both as a player and a friend, just so proud of him," Bruns said of Grueneich. "We're like brothers. Watching him get every yard, it just makes me proud to call myself a friend and teammate of him. I just love him so much. He's just such a great person, a great friend, a great teammate. It was a great feeling to be out here and feel like I'm back with the team."
"It's pretty awesome. He came to practice every day. It's awesome seeing him get out there one time," Grueneich said. "It was pretty overwhelming."
E 7 21 7 7--42
D 6 14 0 0--20
D-Knutson 13 pass from Schestler (pass failed)
E-Grueneich 6 run (Goehring kick)
E-Goehring 5 run (kick failed)
E-Grueneich 3 run (Wertz pass from Schestler)
D-Schestler 1 run (pass failed)
D-Ruden 74 pass from Schestler (Knutson pass from Schestler)
E-Grueneich 3 run (Goehring kick)
E-Grueneich 73 run (Goehring kick)