In 27 years of officiating, Belding, Michigan, resident Gary Youngs has seen his share of football injuries.

Part of his job as a referee is to prevent injuries, watching out for the safety of players, fans and members of his crew.

Then came the last play of a game in September 2017. This time, Gary needed help. And time would prove critical.

With 12 seconds left on the clock in the Zeeland East versus Hamilton football game, Hamilton, trailing 49-0, ran a final, meaningless play. Nothing fancy, a simple running play up the middle.

But as the game clock ticked to zero, a Hamilton player rolled into Gary’s legs and his right knee suffered a total dislocation. An artery supplying blood to his lower leg was crushed, and the journey to save Gary’s leg began.

Right after the play, his son-in-law Chris German ran over and asked if he was OK.

“Nope, I’m hurt bad and I need help,” Gary told him.

Fortunately for Gary, a doctor and a nurse rushed from the stands to assist while they waited for an ambulance.

“My first reaction was, ‘I’m not sure what the outcome is going to be, but this is my last game,’” he said.

German called Gary’s wife, Tammy, who had attended a football game in Lowell with their grandchildren. Tammy quickly drove to Zeeland where a doctor in the Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital Emergency Department reset Gary’s knee.

The doctor then made the decision to transfer him immediately to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital because of limited blood flow in Gary’s leg due to the crushed artery. That decision proved critical.

“If that doctor had not done that, he would have lost his leg for sure,” Tammy said.

Second ambulance ride

En route to Grand Rapids, paramedics contacted emergency department personnel to assemble a specialized team to help Gary. They counted down the minutes until their arrival.

It suddenly became clear to Gary how critical the situation had become.

“I heard them say 12 minutes out, and I heard them say eight minutes out,” Gary said. “Then the guy in back with me leaned forward and said, ‘Don’t waste any time. We have to save his leg.’”

Tammy also moved fast.

“I had the speech all ready if the police pulled me over,” she said with a wink.

Shortly after his arrival in Grand Rapids, Gary went into surgery. Spectrum Health vascular surgeon Peter Wong, MD, replaced the vein in Gary’s lower leg with a synthetic version during a six-hour procedure. He also cut away fibrous tissue deep in the skin to help avoid amputation.

A second procedure followed three days later, to create a larger opening for fluid drainage.

Gary’s care team told him how lucky he was, but he countered saying, “I haven’t seen any luck in this at all.”

Then a doctor pointed to his leg and said, “That’s the mark where we were going to cut it off.”

He later learned he had been within 40 minutes of losing his leg.

Emergency over, work begins

With a wheelchair and a knee brace, Gary left the hospital, where he stayed for eight days.

The Youngs’ daughter, Mandy German, is a physician assistant and helped change the dressing on the wound every day.

He returned a few weeks later to Butterworth Hospital for a skin graft.

I didn’t think I’d ever be like this again.

Gary Youngs

With initial healing from the surgery progressing, rehabilitation of the knee became the focus.

Gary was familiar with knee rehab, having had knee replacement surgeries in 2015 and 2016.

Physical therapist Ilse Bogard at Spectrum Health United Hospital Outpatient Rehabilitation in Belding, began working with Gary’s knee.

The initial goal? To get Gary’s knee stronger and give it full range of motion.

Scar tissue, the total knee dislocation and drop foot all became major issues. Nerve damage prevented Gary from feeling or moving his foot.

“The communication to the foot wasn’t there, and every time he took a step, his foot would just flop,” Bogard said.

Gary felt discouraged.

Ready for a miracle

But he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

On his next visit to the rehab center he asked, “I need a miracle team. Does anyone want to be on it?”

The team rallied around him.

Gary worked hard, going to rehab two to three days a week.

“He was really good,” Bogard said. “He did his homework and was in good shape before the injury so that helped in his recovery. But it was a really long process.”

After completing nine months of rehab, Bogard is amazed at Gary’s progress.

“If you saw him today you wouldn’t even notice he had an injury,” she said.

He no longer has drop foot, and he regained full range of motion in his knee.

“His recovery has just been incredible,” Bogard said.

Gary, 66, is plant manager of Arctic Ice in Belding and plans to retire at the end of the year. He and Tammy, married 43 years, are having fun playing wiffle ball with their six grandchildren. He’s also playing golf again.

“She gave me the quality of life that I didn’t think I’d have,” Gary said of Bogard. “I didn’t think I’d ever be like this again.”

When asked if he’ll referee again, he’s tentative in answering.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Originally, I said no. But now I’m thinking I want to walk off the field myself.”