When Florence's Kyler Alm collapsed on the sidelines late in the Falcons' regular season finale against Loyola Sacred Heart last October, all attention on the field shifted from the football game to a fellow competitor's well being.
Editor's note: "Football Around the 'Root" is a weekly preview series highlighting the Bitterroot Valley football teams suiting up each week on the gridiron with a lead feature and several storylines for the other area games.
Alm had suffered a subdural hematoma — a life-threatening condition often brought on by blunt force trauma where blood collects in the skull and puts pressure on the brain.
In that moment, whether or not Alm could ever play the sport he loved again was of little concern. The spirited athlete was in a fight for his life.
"You don’t take things for granted. They can be taken away at any time," said Alm, who just completed his junior year at Florence-Carlton high school.
"That was one where I came pretty close to having the side of my head removed. That opens your eyes up when you’re in a position like that."
The injury also put into perspective those things that are important to a person, he said.
And for Alm, one of those things has always been football.
When Alm announced earlier this week on social media that he had been medically cleared to resume football activities it was met with cautious excitement from his friends and family.
Anyone who knows him, and has seen how stir crazy the rising senior has been through his last eight months of recovery, knows that Alm would want to play football again.
Kyler's dad, Darin, said as much just a few days after his son was released from the hospital last fall and before Florence's first-round playoff game.
"The doctors said he could go to the playoff game if he sits in a vehicle and isn’t overstimulated," Darin said back in October. "I told them ‘You don’t know this kid, he’ll probably be trying to get on the field.’"
Darin was kidding of course. While the field was just outside the windshield for Kyler, it was miles of roads of recovery away. Kyler told himself and others that he was going to play again, but truly there was no guarantee.
"I never knew if the doctors would let me, so that's a miracle," said Alm, who shared the doctor's note on Facebook.
Football itself has also come under fire in recent years after studies have shown the sport and its possibility for repetitive play-related head blows can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as (CTE).
That is, obviously, the very thing Kyler needs to avoid.
"At times I thought, ‘Should I play again’ and (my teammates, friends and family) were all really supportive both ways, talking to me about it. They’ve been with me every step along the way," Kyler said. "It’s been pretty special to have those guys right by me, all of Florence and the whole football community has given me support.
"My parents, my dad told me ‘I don’t have to prove anything to him, if I want to be done, I’ve showed everybody what I can do.'"
So why return?
"I love the game. I love playing it. I’m going to take the risk," Kyler said. "The family. You build a bond between every single guy. You build connections, you learn leadership, you learn how to take control when things seem like they’re out of hand. It builds you into a better person mentally and physically."
Florence football coach Pat Duchien may very well be one of the best to empathize with Alm's situation. At 14 years old, Duchien had brain surgery and was told he could never play football again. He too defied recovery odds and went on to play quarterback at UM-Western, the same school where Alm and the Falcons ready for football camp this week.
In fact, Duchien is hyper vigilant when it comes to head trauma concerns. He applied for, and the team received, a $10,000 equipment grant from Riddell last season. Along with new shoulder pads and helmets, the grant also included eight state-of-the art InSite helmets, which are equipped with technology to monitor impact players take in practice and games.
The high level of excitement around Florence football and it's 2-0 start to the season got another big boost.
While there will inevitably be lingering worries when No. 20 takes the field for Florence in the fall, Duchien knows Alm will be doing so in the safest way he can.
"It is hard. I get those questions and you do have to somewhat justify it for the kid," said Duchien. "My feeling is if a kid has an absolute passion and he’s gone through the proper medical advice and healing, are you really going to tell a kid he can’t do something he's passionate about?"
That passion will have to be kept in check, at least in the early going, though. Duchien said the plan is to take "baby steps" with Kyler, a kid who is used to competing full-tilt. Indeed his ferocious abandon on the football field makes Alm play bigger than his 5-foot-4 frame would indicate and it has Frontier college coaches interested in the all-conference linebacker.
While Alm's strong will may very well have helped him to an improbable recovery, it may need to be reigned in at times as summer camps give way to the fall football season.
"He maybe has too strong of a head," Duchien said.
For Alm, that's a good problem to have.