On a recent hunting trip with his father and older brother, Michael Herzog was hiking in the mountains near Scofield, Utah, something that didn't seem possible for the former Concordia Cobbers quarterback six months ago.
"I was sucking air and my heart's beating like crazy, and usually you're like 'This sucks,' but I'm alive and I could feel it so I love that" said the 24-year-old Herzog, who is from Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Herzog has symbolically climbed a mountain after he was involved in a serious accident last spring.
Last March, his life changed in an instant while visiting friends in Moorhead. An early Sunday morning gas explosion in the family's fish house, where he had slept the night before, burned nearly 80 percent of his body with about 20 percent third-degree burns. The force of the blast took off the back of his hands and the skin was hanging from his wrists.
"My first thought was my dad was going to kill me, I just blew up the fish house," said Herzog, who was then 23 years old. "I thought I might lose my hands and that would be pretty tough."
Herzog was a three-year starter at quarterback for the Cobbers, a dual-threat player running the team's triple-option offense. A powerful athlete for Concordia, in the weeks following the accident, Herzog had to again learn basic daily tasks like brushing his teeth, getting out of bed and going to the bathroom.
“As a dad, you think you can cure everything for your family, but this one was completely out of our hands,” said Mike Herzog, Michael's father. “I keep it inside a little bit more. It was tough.”
Michael has had a remarkable recovery. He was expected to be in the hospital for three to six months, but returned home in less than six weeks. There is still redness and scarring on areas of his skin, but he said he doesn't feel like he has any physical limitations six months after the explosion. His hand strength is weak, but he said it's coming back.
Michael has to be careful about exposing his skin to sunlight as it continues to heal. He wears gloves to protect the back of his hands, which still have a red and pinkish color.
"My life is never going to be the same, and it's not the same. I think I have a better life," Michael said. "It opened the door to meet so many amazing people. It opened the door to understanding why people go into the healthcare field because it's truly a calling. ... I feel like I've learned a lot about myself. I feel like I've learned the meaning of family and community."
'I could hear sirens'
On Sunday, March 17, 2019, Michael woke up in the morning and felt cold because the furnace wasn't working in the fish house, where he slept because he didn't want to sleep at a friend's house on the couch.
"I'm kind of a germophobe," Michael said.
The wheeled fish house, which can be used as a camper, sleeps five. Michael turned on three burners on the cooktop and the first match he tried to light broke. The second match lit, and that caused an explosion that blew the roof off the fish house. Both the furnace and cooktop are propane fed, he said.
"I don't think I did anything wrong," Michael said. "I've used it for eight years and never had any issues, kind of a freak deal."
Michael knew it was serious after he stumbled out of the fish house and looked at his hands.
“The back of my hands were de-gloved and just like hanging there, melting," he said. “I didn’t really bleed that much because it almost cauterized everything right away.”
Michael said the explosion blew off his left sock and shredded the boxer briefs he was wearing. He stuck his hands and left foot in the snow, which he wasn't sure was a good idea. Michael said he went into shock right away as he was pacing back and forth over broken glass. He screamed for help and asking anyone who could hear him to call 9-1-1. He noticed people were going to a nearby church.
Michael said Kristina Otte, a secretary at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Moorhead, came to his aid and comforted him until emergency personnel arrived.
"I could hear the sirens in the background," Michael said.
An ambulance took Michael to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo before he was airlifted to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Mike and Jodie, Michael's mom, were in California. They booked the first flight they could to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that Sunday morning. The flight happened to have two open seats.
"We had a ton of God moments that day," Jodie said of getting on that morning flight.
Soon after Jodie arrived at Regions Hospital, Michael's condition was more grim than they anticipated. A nurse gave Jodie a plastic bag that contained Michael’s hair, which had been shaved off his head.
“One of the nurses told me that we needed to pray for a miracle,” Jodie said.
Jodie asked if her son was going to die.
“She never answered me,” Jodie said as her voice cracked with emotion. “I don’t think we realized how bad it was until we got to the hospital.”
Michael had been sedated and didn't remember much from that first day in the hospital.
"I don't think I had my life flash before my eyes," Michael said. "I never thought I was going to die. I'm not a parent yet. And I don't think until I am, that I will understand what (my parents) were going through."
Michael said he's grateful for the support he received from his family during his recovery, especially during the first few weeks after the accident. He said his mom was a rock through many ups and downs.
"She's a tough lady," Michael said. "She never cried in front of me. She got tough on me when I was down and that helped me through. I'm grateful for that tough love."
Michael's parents marveled at their son's grit.
“He’s a tough kid,” Mike said. “Jodie and I both know he is a knucklehead at times, but I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has his courage and his pain threshold.”
'I want to die'
Medical personnel warned the Herzogs that there would be a roller coaster of emotions during Michael’s recovery from the burns. There were times Michael would shake uncontrollably in his hospital bed because he was in so much pain.
“He just said, ‘Take me home. I want to die,’” Jodie said.
Michael said the pain was excruciating at times. He remembers looking at the clock to see when he was scheduled to get more pain medication. He compared the pain to having a severe turf burn over his entire body with the pain never subsiding.
"It was tough," Michael said. "It was really tough."
About three weeks after the accident, Mike said one of the doctors told the Herzogs that Michael was healing better than expected and would not need skin grafts. When Michael received that news, it proved to be a breakthrough moment.
“A tear rolled down his cheek,” Mike said as he started to get emotional. “That was the first time he cried. I think he finally understood that he was going to be OK.”
The Herzogs have four children, Christine, Josh, Michael and Maddie, who is a sophomore on the North Dakota State women’s golf team. Josh also played football at Concordia. Mike and Jodie said their kids helped them get through some of the toughest moments during Michael’s recovery.
“They took care of mom and dad. It was pretty impressive,” Mike said. “Our kids took care of us.”
The Herzogs said they can’t thank enough the support they’ve received from family, friends and even strangers.
“We’d have strangers come to us and say how is your son doing,” Mike said. “We’re praying for him.”
Mike said the outpouring of support the family has received the past six months has made him appreciate how valuable relationships are during difficult times. The Cobbers are wearing an “M9” decal on their helmets this season to honor Michael. No. 9 was his jersey number when he played quarterback for the Cobbers. The "M9" is done in a camouflage color because of Michael's love of the outdoors.
Cobbers head football coach Terry Horan said the team's captains decided on the decal in August after Michael spoke to the team early in fall camp.
"We wanted him to know that we're thinking of him and continue to think of him," Horan said. "It hurts inside and my heart was bleeding for him, but I knew if there was anybody who could fight it and get through it, it would be Michael Herzog."
'A beam of light'
Concordia plays in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and one of the team's biggest rivals is perennial power St. Thomas. Tommies head football coach Glenn Caruso visited Michael every Saturday while Michael was in the hospital in St. Paul.
"For him to take the time for someone who isn't even one of his players was special to me," said Michael, who was a multi-sport athlete at Detroit Lakes High School. "Coach Horan wasn't able to come every week and I knew he would if he could have. It was like (Caruso) stepped up and filled that role. I think that's a testament to the MIAC."
Michael said his first visit from Caruso was brief since he was in a tough spot and didn't want to see visitors. However, the visits got longer each time. Michael said Caruso talked about the challenges his family faced after his wife, Rachael Caruso, was diagnosed with cancer.
Michael said Glenn Caruso told him "comparison is the thief of joy." That message helped Michael, especially when he was going through tough times in the hospital. Soon after he got his phone back, Michael would look at his social media accounts and see what his friends were doing, while he was recovering and doing rehab.
"It was easy to get down and think this was never going to get better," Herzog said. "That has resonated with me. I think it's a good lesson for everybody."
Michael thinks being a year removed from playing football is one of the reasons he was able to leave the hospital sooner than anticipated because he was in peak physical condition. He had also been through physical therapy before after various sports-related injuries and surgeries. Michael played football for Concordia from 2014-17.
“They couldn’t believe that he was able to get out that fast,” Jodie said. “I think a beam of light was coming into this room a nurse said.”
Medical personnel told the Herzogs that Michael would have likely died if he was 50 years old. His age and overall health were factors in why he was able to survive the accident.
Mike remembers watching Michael struggling to get out of bed and put his feet on the floor. There were days Michael didn't want to get out of bed and do his rehab. In contrast, only a couple weeks later, Mike marveled at how far his son had progressed.
“He was jogging around the corridor of burn unit and giving the staff high-fives,” Mike said.
And six months later, Mike, Michael and Josh were in Utah for a hunting trip with Michael, hiking five to eight miles per day. This past Father’s Day in June was another meaningful moment for Mike.
“Father’s Day this year for me was the best Father’s Day ever,” Mike said. “I was grateful to still be the dad of four children.”