MOORHEAD — The summer before his senior year of high school, Minnesota State Moorhead sophomore Jared Kallenbach thought his gridiron career was over.

During a football camp, Kallenbach went up for a ball, landed awkwardly on his side and then landed in the emergency room. His initial thought was a rib injury, but a CT scan revealed a ruptured spleen and lacerated kidney. That led to an ambulance ride from Valley City, N.D., to Fargo, where he met with a surgeon.

“They told me that I was never going to play football again,” said Kallenbach, a 2019 Jamestown (N.D.) High School graduate. “I was heartbroken. … Hearing that your dreams are crushed, I remember breaking down right there on the spot. It was tough, one of the hardest things I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Jennifer Kallenbach, Jared’s mother, remembers that difficult news.

“He was pretty devastated,” she said. “The look on his face and in his eyes, lots of tears. He tried to hold it together. I think we all had a moment where we were pretty upset.”

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In time, Jared healed and didn’t need surgery. After bed rest and limited activity for three months, he missed only the first game of his senior football season with the Blue Jays.

Now, he’s the starting free safety for the Dragons and leads the team in tackles through two games. MSUM (1-1) plays at Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference foe Augustana (S.D.) University (2-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18.

“Jared is a baller; he’s just a gamer,” said Dragons head coach Steve Laqua. “He’s around the ball, he makes plays. He does the dirty work that needs to be done.”

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Kallenbach has 18 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery this season. He played special teams as a true freshman before last season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Laqua said Kallenbach improved during that lost season.

“To Jared’s credit, he’s a self-made man because during quarantine he became a much better athlete and player,” Laqua said. “He used that downtime so to say and transformed himself. … He made himself into a good player last fall when there was no season, just by pure effort of learning the game.”

Kallenbach was a multiple-sport standout at Jamestown High School and was a key contributor on the Blue Jays' 2019 North Dakota Class A state boys championship team. His tenacity on the baseball court is one of the reasons Laqua recruited Kallenbach. Laqua said one of his good coaching friends spoke highly of Kallenbach’s grit.

“He played tenacious defense,” Laqua said of the basketball scouting report. “(My friend said), ‘Hey, this kid is a gritty competitor.’ He’s a scrapper. There’s got to be something he can do in a football program.”

Kallenbach said his senior high school football season started slow due to the internal injury. He only had one practice before he played his first game and that caused some tense moments as he returned to the football field.

“I was pretty nervous,” Kallenbach said.

“The first time that he played a game again I was extremely nervous,” Jennifer added. “He was ready to go. He was able to overcome that.”

Jennifer was proud that her son persevered.

“I’m really proud of him because he didn’t let it get him down,” Jennifer said. “It was a really scary injury and a lot of kids, nobody would fault him to say, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’”

Kallenbach comes from an athletic family. His father, Mikel Kallenbach, played free safety at North Dakota State in the 1990s. Jennifer competed in cross country, track and gymnastics in high school. She was an athletic training major at NDSU. Laqua was a Bison football teammate of Mikel for one season and also knew Jennifer through athletic training. Laqua was a freshman when Mikel was a senior for the Bison.

Laqua said Mikel and Jared have some similarities.

“They’re similar in personality, they play the same position, they’re both tough,” Laqua said. “Jared is more athletic. Mikel is tougher, so far. We’ll see.”

In his third season with the Dragons, Kallenbach is a respected teammate.

“He’s just a hard worker,” said Dragons sophomore receiver Ryan Bieberdorf. “He’s got a knack for the ball on the field. He always seems to be around the ball making plays. … He’s gotten a lot stronger and a lot faster than when we first came in and that’s really what’s jumped him up to the next level.”

Jennifer said since “he was a little kid” Jared had always wanted to play college football.

“He’s very driven and determined,” she said. “He’s always somebody that was able to overcome adversity. Whatever was standing in his way, he just wanted to do it.”