It looked as though Laurens native Jesse Schmidt's career in pro football was going to be over almost before it began.
After his years hauling in passes as Buena Vista University's most dangerous offensive weapon, Schmidt hoped to catch on somewhere to keep playing football.
Sean Ponder, coach of the Quad City Steamwheelers team in the Arena Football 2 league, happened to be surfing the web when he collided with an opportunity.
"I found him on the website combines.com, and he was rated the best prospect among all the players - not just the players at his position," Ponder recalls.
Schmidt went crossstate to play for the Steamwheelers, but in the home opener of his rookie season, with three touchdown catches already in his hip pocket, he was running downfield on routine kick coverage with seconds left in a game the Steamwheeler had already put in the bank, and planted a foot to sidestep an opponent, just as he had a few thousand times before.
The next thing he knew, he was writhing on the field in the worst pain he had ever experienced.
"I thought it was all over. I was seeing my career literally passing before my eyes," he remembers. "I was watching the doctor's eyes; he didn't have to tell me it was bad."
The blown-out knee cost him the season - and maybe a lot more than that.
Just before the ACL injury, Jesse had had a workout for the NFL Green Bay Packers. Coaches there liked his size and speed, but said he needed a year more experience and told him to go play the year in the Arena League and they would call him after the season.
Suddenly, for him, there was no season. And no call.
Experts said that if he was to come back, it could take up to nine months of rehab.
Jesse Schmidt isn't particularly known for his patience. He did it in six, trying desperately to return for Quad City's playoffs appearance.
"I had no lifestyle for that year. Basically I lifted weights and rehabbed, and that was my whole life," he says. "They scolded me for doing too much in rehab."
The Quad City coaches had seen a tantilizing hint of what was to come, and were taking no risks with him at less than 100 percent. A fully-recovered Schmidt was in uniform again for the first game this spring season.
"One thing you learn at BV is how to work - on the field and off. It's the BV mentality, and it helped me. I had spent my off season lifting weights and watching tape."
It paid off. "I'm stronger than most wide receivers, and bigger than any of the defensive backs I've seen yet," Schmidt said.
That sinew comes in handy. The arena league is a tough way for a wideout to make a living.
"In college ball, you can dodge out of bounds on a hit at the end of a play. In arena football, on every run somebody just slams you, then you slam the wall, and as you bounce off, someone slams you again," he laughs.
Compared to the Iowa Conference, the Arena 2 league is "a totally different breed of football," he says.
"The smaller size of the field takes some getting used to, and the speed of the game is way faster, with a lot of two-play touchdown drives. These guys were Division I players, or the best of the best in DII. Some of them have been in NFL camps, and every one of them was the standout at their college."
For Schmidt, the league represents hope.
If he can get noticed in the Arena League, it would open doors to move up in the AFL or beyond, "maybe a tryout with an NFL team again sometime."
And noticed, he is getting.
Schmidt leads his team so far this season in receptions, longest pass play, touchdown, yardage and scoring - with nearly double the points of his nearest teammate.
On March 28, he set a new team high by pulling in 10 passes against Scranton, and matched the feat April 28 against the Green Bay Blizzard. April 19, he set the team season high with 156 yards receiving against the Iowa Barnstormers.
In six games played so far this season, he has had four three-TD games, almost 700 yards and 16 trips to the end zone.
At 6'3" and 220 pounds, he is far from fragile, and has a half dozen solo tackles on defense as well.
Turning 25 next month, he's also putting his degree in marketing to work as an account manager in the off season - a gig he enjoys almost as football.
He has only time left over for his friends and family, rides on his motorcycle as his favorite form of relaxation, and girlfriend Danielle. "We met way back when we were both going to Buena Vista, and we're still together." Speaking of BVU, the wide receiver holds a bushel of school records set in three years, including: career receiving yardage (2,314), career catches (132) and most touchdowns in a season (12 in 2004). In 2005, he was named to the All-West Region team and he participated in the Aztec Bowl.
As a student at Laurens-Marathon, he participated in football, basketball, track, baseball and was on the swim team, and grew up a died-in-the-silver-wool Dallas Cowboys fan.
Little did he know that he would be playing pro ball one day.
"Just living the dream," he laughs. "I just got off a killer 14 hour bus trip, but I'm still playing football and somebody's paying me for it. It doesn't get better than that."
His family never misses a home game, or road games within range in places like Des Moines and Peoria. They will be in their familiar seats this weekend as the 2-4 Steamwheelers face a pivotal game against the Peoria Pilots at the I-Wireless Center.
There's plenty of support from the Laurens-Marathon community, too. "I've been lucky enough to win a couple of Offensive Player of the Game awards, and somebody will call and just say they are proud of me," he says. "When I'm home, I like to take some extra time for the kids too.
"They always want talk about how exciting it would be to play pro football, but what I tell them is how I got here - and that was because people helped me learn to never give up, and because of plain hard work."
He hopes his team can recover in the chase for the Arena Cup, the league's version of the Super Bowl, but every day is a win for him.
With a great family, a strong relationship and a bright future, he rebounds from the bruises and the losses in the same way he encourages the hometown kids to - not giving up.
"After spending last season sitting there having to watch my guys compete without me, now I know how truly blessed I am."