They didn't find the proof until years later when Montana team doctors opted for an x-ray of an unrelated leg injury. There it was, a sure sign of an age-old bone break, the injury that wiped out most of McCauley Todd's junior year at Washington High School.
That break, a small one near where the fibula and tibia meet the foot, interrupted the budding offensive lineman's college recruitment. It forced him to get proactive in pushing his wares on recruiters. He and his father badgered dozens of coaches with phone calls and emails, visited another large chunk of campuses and finally fell in love with Missoula, Montana.
"It seems like there's been adversity at every step for me, some that I've created myself and some I couldn't have foreseen," said McCauley, now a senior Montana Griz but once again facing an uphill battle after transitioning from starting guard to backup tackle this fall.
"My whole career, it's just taught me that all you can do is work hard and put everything out on every play."
College recruiters want game tape to analyze and the lineman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa had little to offer.
The Todds scrounged together what they could and started working the phones. The player's brief highlight reel made the rounds to 50, 60, maybe 70 schools across the Midwest and western United States. From Division II to FBS, offensive line coaches were hearing from the family from eastern Iowa.
"Nobody was really telling me how good he was," remembered Mark Todd, McCauley's father. "D-III coaches liked him. Well, let's see about Division II then. If the D-II guys like him, let's try the FCS."
McCauley and Mark did their research, searching for top programs at each level. Montana looked nice, McCauley thought, and the Griz had the on-field record to match. By the end of McCauley's senior year, the Todds had made inroads with former Griz O-line coach Bob Beers. Beers invited the family out on an official recruiting visit in December 2011.
In the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs that weekend, the Griz played Northern Iowa -- a team not even an hour from the Todds' home. Ironically, McCauley had just wandered around UNI's Cedar Falls campus the week before and attended the Panthers' playoff win over Wofford.
There was something different about Montana.
"The atmosphere was unreal. In Missoula I just felt so at home even though I didn't know anybody," he said. "I knew I wanted to be at a school that has that fan support. What we do is really tough and in my opinion you want to be somewhere people really care about what you're doing and there isn't a better place than here."
With hard-fought scholarship offers from a number of D-II and FCS programs in hand, including Northern Iowa and Montana State, Todd gave his commitment following the Grizzlies' 48-10 playoff drubbing.
After sitting most of his high school junior year because of that injury, McCauley waited another two to begin his Griz career. He didn't see the field until 2014 when he played in nine games as a redshirt sophomore and made one start as the primary backup at left guard.
Another set of injuries, this time to his shoulder and knee, kept him on the sidelines for the first few games of the 2015 season. Once healthy though, McCauley couldn't be kept out of the starting lineup. He bypassed opening-day starter Max Kelly and started the final nine games.
He appeared ready to start again in 2016. That's when Griz offensive line coach Chad Germer approached him with a change in fall camp.
Montana was deep at guard, very deep in fact. There's senior all-conference lineman Devon Dietrich and Kelly with starting experience. Redshirt freshman Angel Villanueva was showing promise. The return of starting center Ben Weyer, who missed all of 2015 with a knee injury, meant that Weyer's fill-in Robert Luke could shift to guard, too.
They needed McCauley to slide outside to tackle where the team is much lighter behind starters junior David Reese and senior Jackson Thiebes.
"Five guys get their name in the program, but we need six, seven, eight if you can that are all important," Germer explained of the offensive line. "... If something happens, you want your sixth-best guy in there. You'll move guys around to make that work."
McCauley's combination of skill and size -- he's 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds -- made him the go-to for that swing position.
"He's a tall guy with real long arms," Germer continued. "Everybody gets hung up on height, but it's really arm length to be able to handle D-ends that are working different moves and coming off the edge."
The position isn't foreign to McCauley. He played a lot of tackle at Washington High. He was all-conference as a senior and surrendered no sack in 235 pass attempts.
The objectives are the same whether at tackle or playing next to the center at guard, McCauley said: Be physical and don't get beat to the inside. It was trial by fire during fall camp, though.
"It's a little nerve racking being out there across from Caleb Kidder," he said with a laugh, singling out Montana's nationally recognized defensive end.
Like last year and several times before in his football career, McCauley is again fighting for playing time. He's happy to be in this latest fight, though.
"The biggest thing for me is I want to win," he said. "I hate losing and if the coaches tell me we're gonna win if I go play backup tackle, then I'll go play backup tackle."
Still it's too bad he won't see more of the field Saturday considering the opponent, or more specifically the number of friendly faces who will be watching that opponent from the stands.
The Griz travel to face No. 3 Northern Iowa this week in a serendipitously scheduled nonconference clash. It's the first time Montana has played a game in the state of Iowa in a decade -- UM lost to FBS Iowa in 2006 -- and it comes in McCauley's last season of college ball.
The road trip home means so much to the 23-year-old that he personally thanked Montana athletic director Kent Haslam for scheduling it, though he knew his ties had nothing to do with the decision. It's a duel between power programs and top leagues with the Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football conferences going head to head.
The Todd family is thankful, too.
McCauley's parents and siblings will be in attendance -- including little brother Andrew, a high school junior and highly regarded OL prospect with interest across the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences -- but they've made the trip west to see him play many times. For all those aunts and uncles and cousins and high school friends, Saturday is a first opportunity.
"Every time I drive out to Montana and drive through Cedar Falls, Iowa, just 45 minutes from home, I think, 'Boy it would be nice if he'd been here.' I've got 20 more hours of driving," said Mark Todd, who's covered the 1,400 miles one way to Montana nearly a dozen times in the past four years.
"But there's no comparison with the fans. UNI is a great program with great fans, but it's not close to what he's experienced at Montana."