Athlete of the week: Eli Muellenbach, Zimmerman, football: True Grit

by Bruce Strand, Sports Editor

Eli Muellenbach suffered his third knee injury playing football this past June, so the prudent thing would have been to get it surgically repaired right away. However, a senior-to-be looking at his final season doesn’t always act prudently.

“If I’d had the surgery, I’d have missed the season,” said the Zimmerman senior lineman. “So I rehabbed instead.”

Muellenbach was able to play six and a half games at left guard before hobbling off the field for the last time before halftime at Milaca. He played carefully all fall but blocked strongly enough to make all-conference.

Eli Muellenbach, veteran O-line leader for Zimmerman, worked hard to stay on the field his senior year. (Photo by Rebecca Newsome)
Eli Muellenbach, veteran O-line leader for Zimmerman, worked hard to stay on the field his senior year. (Photo by Rebecca Newsome)

Coach Tom Kish left it up to Muellenbach and his parents but was elated the 6-foot, 205-pound student-athlete played.

“Eli was our best lineman this year, and after we lost him for the season, it left a huge hole in our offensive line. His attitude and work ethic is second to none,” said Kish, describing Muellenbach as an excellent player, leader and high-achieving student.

Muellenbach played on both sides of the line in 10th grade but injured his left knee at the homecoming game and was done. He re-injured the knee the summer before his junior year, “but it wasn’t as bad” and played the full season at defensive tackle, with a brace, and got honorable mention.

The Thunder were playing at the North Dakota State team camp in June when Muellenbach messed up his right knee this time after his foot got caught in the turf.

“I was starting to wonder, what the heck,” he admitted. “But, I know there is a reason (things happen). Being a Christian, I know God won’t put you through anything you can’t handle. I had to think of it like that, and that’s what my dad told me, too.”

After consulting with his orthopedic doctor, they decided to aggressively rehab and use a custom knee brace so he could try playing. It helped that his left knee was fine again. He eased his way back until the season opener.

How does one handle all the mayhem in the pits with a ginger knee?

“You can figure out certain things that your knee can and can’t do,” Muellenbach said, adding that you can hear it click. “On the offensive line, you can go after guys and try to get a push; you just have to make sure you are in control.”

That’s why he only played offense and not defense, where he’d have to make bigger cuts and “chop them into a bunch of little steps, which would really slow down your game.”

Muellenbach’s favorite outing was at Little Falls, where the O-line had success on trap plays especially and helped Austin May rush for 211 yards. That game seemed lost when the Flyers were running out the clock, but the Thunder forced a fumble and drove for a touchdown to win 26-21.

“Soon as we got in that huddle, we knew we’d go in and score,” he said. “That was awesome.”

Two weeks later at Milaca, he felt his knee shift — “The most painful moment I ever had” — and his prep career was over. The Thunder lost a close one that night, then their last two and finished 3-7.

“I’m grateful for all the games I got to play,” said Muellenbach, who’s also a thrower on the track team. “But I wish I could have played defense, and I would have loved to play that last game with the guys.”

Surgery to repair the ACL and meniscus took place Nov. 16 and it went well. The knee hadn’t suffered much further damage and full recovery is expected, he was told.

“I should be able to play football again,” he said. “I’d like to. If I go to a Division III school I might go out.”


Eli Muellenbach
Eli Muellenbach

Personal file — Age: 17 … Family: parents Mark and Doreen; sister Lee … Sports: football, track … Academics: 3.9 GPA … College plans: undecided where; probably biology or ecology
Favorite stuff — Class: AP Physics … TV show: “Scrubs” … Movie: the “Red Dawn” remake … Reading: Sports Illustrated … Team: Vikes and other Minnesota teams … Athletes:  Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson … Food: crabs, shrimp, any sea food … Drink: Gatordade grape … Kickback activities: hunting, fishing … Wants to visit: Colorado mountains to hunt elk