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UND FOOTBALL: After gruesome injury, Arnell battles to get back on the field

North Dakota State running back Lance Dunn took a handoff from Carson Wentz and rushed to the right side. After a few yards, UND safety Cole Reyes closed in on the tackle while fellow safety Zach Arnell covered up the cutback lane. As Reyes hit D...

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North Dakota State running back Lance Dunn took a handoff from Carson Wentz and rushed to the right side.

After a few yards, UND safety Cole Reyes closed in on the tackle while fellow safety Zach Arnell covered up the cutback lane.

As Reyes hit Dunn, NDSU tight end Connor Wentz rolled up into Arnell's leg a few yards away from the ball carrier.

"I wouldn't know if I hadn't seen the picture later, but the next thing I know he cut me from the back," Arnell said. "At first, it felt like something was clamped around my leg. I thought someone was on it. I turned around and my foot was pointed in the opposite direction."

Arnell had dislocated his ankle and fractured his fibula.

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The gruesome injury in the Fargodome had many believing Arnell would never play football again. During this 2016 fall camp, though, Arnell has battled his way back onto the field and is running with the No. 1 defense again.

It's a far cry from the scene in Fargo three games into Arnell's Division I career.

Nearing the end of UND-NDSU's rivalry revival on Sept. 19, Arnell remembers just after the injury looking for trainer Sean Degerstrom.

"That's when I went into shock," Arnell said.

UND coach Bubba Schweigert held Arnell's hand and told him it was going to be OK.

Arnell's dad and mom, Gene and Lisa Arnell, were also on the field. Zach told his dad he was done playing football.

"I wasn't thinking straight," Zach said.

Paramedics arrived on the field, loaded Arnell to a stretcher and took him to the ambulance in the back of the Fargodome.

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"I was mentally going crazy," Arnell said. "They stabilized the injury and the next thing I know I'm in the hospital. I don't remember much after that.

"That's probably the worst thing I've ever been through."

After surgery the next day, Zach woke up and his dad asked if he's still thinks he's done playing football.

"I said, 'no, I'm still going to play,' " Zach said.

Moments later, Arnell was told by a doctor that he could play but it might not be smart for his long-term well-being.

Arnell said he used those doubts about his football future as motivation.

"You can mess around in physical therapy, but I took it serious every time I was in there," he said.

Schweigert is pleased with the results so far. Arnell figures to be an important piece in the secondary, which is expected to rely heavily on Reyes, Arnell and sophomore Tanner Palmborg.

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"He's running well and that's the first step here," Schweigert said. "He has to feel good. That was an injury that is tough to recover from. He keeps getting more and more confident. I'm excited he gets this opportunity, and I know he's excited to get this opportunity."

Arnell is just hoping to stay on the field this year. His Division I career was cut short with 15 total tackles last season, including four against the Bison up until his injury.

Arnell, who was recruited by now-departed secondary coach Marty Rodgers, came to UND from Santa Barbara Community College, where Arnell missed most of his sophomore season with a shoulder injury.

That lingering shoulder injury limited Arnell in the spring of 2015 when he arrived at Memorial Stadium. Then he spent most of the 2015 season and the following spring practices on the sideline.

"I spent more time in the physical therapy room than on the field," Arnell said. "I felt like they gave me a scholarship to be in physical therapy, not to play football.

"I just want to be healthy, man. The last two seasons haven't been too good for me, but I'm good now and I just have to keep working."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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