Despite last week's loss to Siena Heights, Jake Osterberger had a smile on his face as he played around with his younger cousins.
The St. Ambrose senior running back has learned to enjoy those little moments, knowing how easily they could be lost after suffering a back injury in the offseason.
"You've got to take everything in, can't take it for granted," Osterberger said. "That back injury put everything into perspective. I didn't really think much of it. I've always played football; it's just something I do in the fall. But when that got taken away from me, that made me realize what it all means to me.
"Just having all my family there, watching me and my little cousins. Their dad is my cousin and I would go watch him play football when I was their age, and now they're watching me. It's just cool being with them."
Osterberger spends his summers building houses up in his hometown of Dubuque. Two weeks before the start of fall camp, he slipped on some loose boards and fell about nine feet off the roof of a house. He broke his L1, L2 and L3 vertebrae, suffered a concussion and needed three staples in the back of his head.
It could have been worse.
"The doctor said I got pretty lucky with what happened," Osterberger said. "He said if a couple of things had been a little worse, there was a possibility of me being paralyzed, but everything fell into place where I came out in the best-case scenario.
"There was a feeling of relief. There's definitely someone up there looking down on me."
Osterberger then had to balance that relief with frustration at knowing he would have to miss playing time heading into his senior season. He's been a big piece for the St. Ambrose offense in his career, with 1,250 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past three seasons.
Initially, he was told he would likely miss at least half of the season. It was a tough prognosis made harder by the fact that Osterberger had no pain in his back for most of camp.
"That was the hardest thing, knowing I don't have any pain, why can't I go back now?" he said. "You try to make the best of it, help the guys out, but you really wish you can be out there."
However, with rest and oversight from the school's athletic trainer Dean Beauchamp, Osterberger was cleared to return to the field the Thursday prior to the team's Week 2 game against Marian. He saw his first game action last week against Siena Heights, rushing for 52 yards, including a 37-yard carry that showed no ill effects of the back injury.
You have free articles remaining.
"My first couple carries, I wasn't getting anything, then I hit that run and it felt like, all right, it's all coming back together," he said. "It's going to be all right."
Though he ran hard, Osterberger knows he's not back to full strength yet. He made a few mental mistakes, the result of the absence of reps in fall and through the first two weeks of the season.
But there's little doubt those mistakes will be few and far between.
"He's smart," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "Normally, he makes very few mistakes. He knows what he's doing, and he's a back that does a little bit of everything for us. He's good at picking up blitzes, recognizing blitzes, catching the ball out of the backfield. He runs hard, both in between the tackles and outside. he's just a very good, all-around running back and football player."
Osterberger's return should help a St. Ambrose rushing attack that is only averaging 106.7 yards per game. The Bees are also moving Isaiah Hawkins back to running back after trying him out at receiver for the first three weeks, which should add some dynamism to the backfield.
However, Osterberger might have to wait to see it. He suffered an ankle sprain last week and is questionable for Saturday's game against third-ranked Saint Francis (Ind.).
After all that's already happened, it's another tough blow for the senior.
"Obviously it's my senior year so I've got to go out with a bang, but going through all this stuff, it seems like everything so far has been kind of going against me," Osterberger said. "I'm just trying to do as best as I can to just finish my college career strong."
However, after recovering from a broken back, he doesn't plan on letting the ankle keep him out for long.
Not if he can help it.
"I know I can get through it and I know I'm going to get through it and I'm going to do everything I can to play," he said. "It's my senior year, I can't hold anything back."