Trae Vasquez lay on the turf and was crying.
It was Oct. 13, 2017, and on the newly installed field turf at Legends Stadium, on a routine attempt to make a tackle on a routine kickoff, the Flathead High School senior’s bright future suddenly clouded.
“It was honestly one of the scariest things that’s happened in my life,” Vasquez said on May 1, just days after being cleared to return to competition following major left knee surgery and six months of rehab. He had to learn to walk again, to ride a bike again and had gained a new perspective, staring down the kind of adversity he’d rarely faced in football, in wrestling, in the classroom or in just about anything else he’d ever tried.
Vasquez has (or had) the kind of resume that makes college coaches drool. He proudly carries a 4.0 grade-point average, is an all-state football player, a two-time state champion wrestler and a five-time track and field state placer. He is devoted to his family, his studies and his training, so much so that when healthy he would regularly rise before dawn to squeeze in an early morning workout.
So it wasn’t surprising that, before Oct. 13, Vasquez was one of the most sought-after wrestling recruits in the country.
“Going through football season, I was getting calls and texts from coaches (all the time),” Vasquez said. “But when I dealt with my surgery it went away. I kind of felt abandoned … from being a highly recruited kid to pretty much falling off the face of the earth was hard.”
Not everyone left, however, and after he watched his teammates win a second consecutive state wrestling title in February, he still had a handful of Division I options. One of those was at Cal Poly, where Vasquez committed on April 30.
Two weeks earlier, the Kalispell native flew to San Luis Obispo, California for his official visit. He spent an afternoon on the beach and stayed with an Oregonian who agreed that the area’s rolling hills were reminiscent of the mountains back home. Fate, or perhaps a skilled recruiter, led him to breakfast at the Big Sky Cafe, and Vasquez even appreciated the program’s blue-collar facilities.
“Everything I saw I really liked,” Vasquez said. “Their weight room and their wrestling room are nothing fancy, but that’s how I like it — you get in there and you grind.”
Vasquez called his dad, Rich, less than 24 hours after he arrived in California.
“I said, ‘Dad, I’ve got to go here,’” he said. “I love all the guys, I love all the coaches, I’m on the West Coast; I can’t find one negative thing about this. They believed in me and I believed in what they were telling me. It felt like home.”
Cal Poly’s reputation as an elite academic school didn’t hurt either, nor did the fact that the Mustangs’ wrestling team posted the highest GPA of any men’s program on campus during the winter quarter. Vasquez plans to study kinesiology as an undergrad, and his experience over the last year has led him to consider a future as an orthopedic surgeon.
“We’ve talked about going D-I but we were always focused on grades — wrestling being a means to an end,” Rich Vasquez said. “All the work that he’s done, to get this type of education is everything he’s ever dreamed about.”
Vasquez’s commitment is a heartwarming end to what has been a trying last six months. After surgery, Vasquez needed help putting on his socks in the morning, and for weeks afterward his dad and his younger siblings — both of whom are also acclaimed wrestlers — would spend their evenings in Trae’s bedroom, watching movies together while the eldest child iced his throbbing knee.
“There were definitely days where I was super depressed … there were some dark days,” Vasquez said. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life, but I’m way stronger for it and I’m appreciative for it.”
Ever the competitor, Vasquez boasted that he received a clean bill of health one day ahead of schedule, and he will run for the Flathead track team starting at the Archie Roe Invitational on May 5. He leaves in June for Cal Poly to begin training for July’s Junior Nationals in Fargo, and after that his attention turns fully to Cal Poly’s difficult schedule as a member of the Pac-12 Conference.
And while Vasquez says he harbors no ill will toward the coaches and schools that went silent last year, a chip on his shoulder can’t be something his future opponents look forward to seeing.
“I’m super grateful that (Cal Poly) never gave up on me and they believed in me,” Vasquez said. “I don’t have any harsh feelings, but on the mat I’ll show (the other schools) what they’re missing.”