Isaac Hostetter still remembers the play like it was yesterday.
“It was Week Two last year at Lampeter-Strasburg,” Penn Manor’s senior student-athlete said. “It was the third play of the game, it was third down, and I was on defense playing corner.”
The Pioneers called a bubble screen play and the pass came out in the flat, and Hostetter was zeroing in on making the tackle.
“I ran up and I hit the dude right as he caught,” Hostetter said. “I saw the bubble screen right away and I flew up, and I was right there when he caught the ball. I hit him, but my head was down, and it went right into his thigh.”
“I blacked out,” Hostetter said, “and when I woke up, I really couldn’t move, but I didn’t think anything was seriously wrong. I had some pain, but I thought it was a back spasm or something. I didn’t think I fractured my spine.”
In two places.
Hostetter was checked out by Penn Manor’s team doctor at halftime that night in Lampeter, and he never returned to the game. He took the team bus back to Millersville with his teammates, but when he couldn’t sit up to get off the bus — needing classmate Peyton Suydam, the Comets’ two-way all-star lineman, to help carry him — Hostetter knew something wasn’t right.
Later than night, Hostetter went to Lancaster General Hospital with his parents, Kevin and Nicole, and he had three MRI procedures: One on his head and two on his back.
The diagnosis: Compression fractures in his thoracic spine to vertebrae T6 and T7. Hostetter was immediately admitted to the hospital and given pain medication.
“The doctor said I was lucky not to have any paralysis,” he said. “I was sad, scared and really down.”
Hostetter spent four nights in the trauma unit and he was fitted for a back brace — which he dubbed the turtle shell — and he began several months of rest and then physical therapy.
“The doctors told me that this was an uncommon injury in sports,” Hostetter said. “They said it’s more common in car accidents, or in elderly people. My mom kept looking at the bright side. She would tell me how lucky I was, and that I’d be able to walk and feel my legs and my arms.”
In February, after huddling with his doctors and trainers — including a doctor who performed brain surgery on his grandfather — Hostetter was cleared to play lacrosse, and he even got some action in the Comets’ scrimmage match in March.
The lacrosse season was later canceled by the PIAA because of coronavirus concerns, so Hostetter spent the spring continuing to rehab his spinal injury so he could get back on the football field. And Hostetter has made a triumphant return to the gridiron this fall.
“People don’t normally come back and play sports after that kind of an injury,” Penn Manor football coach John Brubaker said. “It’s miraculous that he’s back out here playing. It really is.”
Hostetter isn’t going through the motions; he’s been a key contributor in the Comets’ first three games with a team-best nine catches for 170 yards with a touchdown reception, and he also has an interception on defense.
“I’m definitely more cautious and sometimes hesitant to hit someone full-on,” Hostetter said. “But it’s gotten better here the last four or five weeks with the tackling. The doctor said it was pretty crazy that I had healed in four or five months from that kind of an injury, so it’s still kind of crazy when I think back about it. I could have been paralyzed, and that would have changed my life forever.”
Doctors told Hostetter that his vertebrae will likely never completely heal, and that he’ll probably suffer some side effects later in life.
But for now, Hostetter is back doing what he loves: Playing wide receiver and defensive back for the Comets. And he’s hoping to get a full lacrosse season in next spring.
“I’ve had some moments when I’ve wondered if I really wanted to risk this,” Hostetter said. “But I’m glad I’m back.”
“This kid is coming off a broken back, and he was really hurting,” Brubaker said. “I thought it was going to be a long shot to ever see him on the football field again. But he’s come full circle, and he’s felt great and he’s played hard and he hasn’t been tentative. Mentally, that’s a tough thing to get through because an injury can be demoralizing, and it can defeat you sometimes. Getting back from something like that, you need a strong will and a lot of courage. And Isaac has that spirit in him.”