Newman vs. Wausau East on Sept. 10, 2021: Photo by Mitch Skurzerwski for Wausau Pilot & Review

By Mitchell A.Skurzewski 

For Wausau Pilot Review 

WAUSAU – Wausau Newman Catholic 8-Player football head coach Paul Michlig was emotional in the post game huddle. Tears welled, and he had to collect his thoughts for a moment before speaking.  

The Cardinals had just defeated Wausau East in a Week 3 matchup in lopsided fashion. However, it was a pretty somber mood. Midway through the third quarter. Star running back and linebacker Thomas Bates went to the ground clutching his left knee. Michlig smacked the ground, knowing deep down what the likely injury was – a torn ACL.

In the huddle addressing the team, Michlig was adamant the team not allow the injury to derail their season or their hopes. They owed it to Thomas. 

“Obviously when it first happens, you’re just worried about the young man,” Michlig said. “He loves football. And you just feel awful for him because he works so hard and now he has the worst injury for a high school athlete or one of them. But Thomas is such a great teammate and he didn’t want everything to stop. He immediately switched into helping any way he could.”

“But then walking into school the next day I was just thinking ‘“how are we going to do this without him?’” 

Despite being without “their heart and soul” in Bates, the Cardinals have yet to lose this year and with their dramatic 29-28 win over Gilman last Friday in Stanley, the Cardinals earned a trip to the WIAA 8-Player State Championship game against Luck on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Wisconsin Rapids. 

“For us to beat the number one team in the state without the heart and soul of this team is a testament to everyone in our locker room and it is pretty extraordinary to do that in 8-man football without your top guy,” Michlig said.

After the win sending the Cardinals to state, Bates went from the pressbox to the post game celebration on the field as fast as he could on crutches. He raised his crutches in elation and celebrated with his teammates.

“I looked at it two ways, I could be down and feel sorry for myself and bring others down or I could look at it as another obstacle and attack it and be positive and raise everyone’s feelings around me,” Bates said. “This is my injury, it’s unfortunate, but I am still going to cheer on my guys.”

While tearing an ACL can be a devastating injury, Bates’s attitude afterward and subsequent surgery has been uplifting for his teammates. He hasn’t had a ‘woe is me’ attitude or been an idle bystander, but has instead acted almost as another coach to his teammates. 

Bates still is constantly with team and looking for ways to encourage and cheer them on, taking part in film sessions; and, like he was in the game against Gilman, be in the pressbox telling his teammates and coaches what he is seeing on the field during the game.

“It’s been hard seeing him on crutches and I wanted so badly to play with Thomas this year,” Newman tight end and rush end Eli Gustafson said. “But he’s been as great of a leader off the field as he has been on the field. He will always be encouraging us on the sideline or tapping us with crutches on a big play when we get back from the sideline and hyping us up. He’s a great friend and a great leader even though he has been out.”

For Bates, it’s been a trying season, but he remains both optimistic and supportive. And he has had fun seeing the success of his teammates, who are one win from helping him and the Newman program reach for a gold ball.

“This has been so awesome and fun, just watching our guys go on this run,” Bates said. “I am just as excited as if I was playing and I am excited for Saturday. Obviously it’s still emotional, not being out there playing with my guys, but to see them having success is such a great feeling. One more. One more to go.”