Stillwater high school pole vaulter Braden Cousineau practiced at Stillwater High Monday May 2, 2016 Stillwater, MN.] Jerry Holt /Jerry.Holt@Startribune.com
Stillwater senior Braden Cousineau thought he had his life planned out. At age 14, he brought a detailed plan to join the military to his parents. He also played on the Ponies’ football team and pole vaulted, looking forward to a successful senior year before heading off to serve his country.
Those plans changed in late 2014, Cousineau’s junior year, when his parents and trainer noticed his spine was severely crooked. After a whirlwind of X-rays and doctor visits, the diagnosis came — Cousineau had spondylolisthesis. His spine had slipped off his tailbone, putting stress on the spinal cord. Doctors said without major spinal fusion surgery, he would be paralyzed from the waist down within the next 10 years.
Cousineau said the consequences of the diagnosis were worse than the diagnosis itself. In a final pre-operation meeting, head surgeon Dr. David Polly told his family that football would not be an option.
“My parents and Dr. Polly … went on talking and I just shut down,” Cousineau said. “Everything just kind of went blank. … We’re a huge football family, and my dad’s been coaching high school football [at Stillwater] ever since I can remember. This was supposed to be the year that I was finally going to do what I’ve been waiting to do … and that was just kind of all gone in an instant.”
The bad news kept coming. Cousineau later found out spondylolisthesis was a disqualifier for enlistment in the military. The family had already visited colleges and met with ROTC directors on each campus.
“I [wanted to] make my impact and make a difference and help people,” Cousineau said. “I was about as far into the process as you can go without signing anything. … It was kind of depressing.”
Fast forward to March 9, 2015. Cousineau was in intensive care after a 10-hour procedure. He frequently experienced 30-minute spasms from the pain, screaming for nurses to give him more medication.
“It just pains you to see your child in so much pain,” said Deanna Cousineau, Braden’s mother. “And not knowing what walking was going to look like for him [or] if sports were even going to be an option for him, it was just so heart-wrenching.”
With football and the military out, Braden Cousineau learned pole vaulting wasn’t entirely improbable. The family agreed that if Dr. Polly cleared him, he could return to the track for his senior season.
Braden Cousineau began his comeback by walking out of the hospital as far as nurses would let him.
“I now have a new spine, and the stubborn teenage boy in me said, ‘No, I want to leave and I want to do it under my own power,’ ” Cousineau said. “It meant something to me that I was walking out of a hospital when less than a week ago, I was laying on an operation table with a bunch of doctors with tools in my back.”
Joe Cousineau, Braden’s father, said his son was preparing for a comeback from Day 1.
“Once he got the go-ahead, he was lifting hard-core. Then when the doctors met up with him [in November], he got cleared to do whatever he wanted … It surprised the hell out of the doctor, and he said, ‘You know what, I really don’t have any reason why you can’t,’ ” Joe Cousineau said.
Before surgery, Braden Cousineau’s pole vaulting personal best was 12 feet. He came back and cleared 13 feet at a preseason camp in March, during the one-year anniversary week of his operation. In the first meet of the high school season, he cleared 12-6, setting a personal record.
“It was one of the proudest moments as a coach that I’ve ever had because when I went to see him in the hospital, his condition was one that you hope that he could get up and walk again,” Ponies pole vaulting coach Ben Straka said. “No matter how the season ends for him, it’s a success.”
Braden Cousineau isn’t content.
“My goal for the end of the year right now is to make it to state,” he said.
He’s also refigured his post-high school plans and will attend the Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the fall. He’s shifted his career interest to federal law enforcement.
“I’m a very patriotic person, and so I feel like that’s the next best way I can serve,’’ he said. “If I can’t do something overseas, I might as well do something here.”
Kaitlin Merkel is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.