Bryce Perdue's journey is not complete.
He set a goal long ago, one as predictable as Thanksgiving falling on the fourth Thursday of November. He wants to win a high school state championship, which doesn't set him apart from anyone else who hits the mat each winter.
He's been close, but has yet to get there. He still has two more chances to achieve what he desires, but at this point the journey is about more than standing atop a podium.
Not long after a successful freshman season that saw him win a Region 3 championship and finish third in the state at 113 pounds, Perdue suffered gruesome injuries to both legs. Nearly 20 months later, he still cringes at the thought of talking about it and chooses not to discuss the details surrounding that day.
"I broke the tibia and fibula in my left leg and the tibia in my right, and my (right) kneecap shot up into my thigh and tore a tendon," Perdue reluctantly offers.
He went through emergency surgery and was staring down the barrel of a long rehabilitation process. At 15 years old he was bedridden and was not given an optimistic outlook.
Perdue was homebound, unable to return to his Independence classmates because of his extreme lack of mobility.
"I had a wheelchair but I couldn't get out on it because I had to have my legs straight and whenever I could go they had to use this board at the bottom of my feet to keep them propped up," he said.
Overcoming the injury wasn't as scary as the alternative. So he prepared himself mentally for the long road ahead.
"They started off having me hold on to a pole with my upper body and kind of push myself up and get on my feet a little bit," he said. "Then they put me on a walker and I had to walk around on that for a few weeks.
"Every time I got up my legs would shake real bad. My legs were as big around as my wrists. I still don't have my leg muscles back."
It was grueling, but Perdue kept his focus on getting back to the sport he has loved since he was in kindergarten. His determination made the ordeal more bearable than expected.
"Recovery seemed like a slow process, but it (went) a lot faster than what everybody thought," Perdue said. "I was stuck in bed for a few months. Maybe a month and a half or two, which was faster than everybody said it would be."
He was far from being in wrestling shape, but he was somehow able to get back for his sophomore year. Less than a year after the injuries, Perdue made his debut at the West Virginia Army National Guard Duals in January. He won his first two matches as the methodical return to the mat began.
"I was kind of nervous, because I knew what I was capable of (going into) last year. Then, stepping back on, I didn't know if my legs were going to lock up on me, or I would lose a match I shouldn't lose or what was going to happen," Perdue said. "I wasn't even really planning on shooting. I was planning really on working off kids and countering, because it still hurt pretty bad to hit my knee. I wasn't going to tell anybody that, because I like to do it. I took my first shot, I think, in my second match. It felt good, but it was pretty bad pain.
"It was an emotional day."
"You kind of held your breath every match, then as the season went on you could see he was OK and was going to be fine," Independence coach Jeremy Hart said.
Perdue pressed on the rest of the season and advanced to the region final at 120, where he fell 5-3 to Oak Hill's Ashby West. He followed that up with another third-place finish at the state tournament and finished the season with a 17-6 record.
"We really didn't know what he was going to be able to do," Hart said. "What he did last year, it was just unbelievable the season that he had, to come back and place at states."
Still, recovery was far from complete. Two weeks after the state tournament, Perdue had a second surgery to remove the hardware that had been used to help his healing. That's when an unknown problem was discovered.
"We didn't know until I had my second surgery, but I went through last year with the meniscus in both my legs torn," Perdue said. "They had to almost completely cut it out. I barely have a meniscus now and it grinds."
Looking back, it all made sense.
"When I did get back on the mat, every time I would shoot it felt like my knees were going to bust again," he said. "But I figured as long as I could do it and it doesn't get any worse, I would push through it. Even up to states, after the first period my legs were shaking. I would step off the mat and my legs were shaking.
"I've tried to do a lot of squats to get my leg muscles back. That's where I'm lacking right now."
Most athletes compete while injured, but that does no justice to where Perdue still is at this point.
"I still have pain today," he said. "I'll wake up in the middle of the night and have to walk. I don't know why, but it happens every now and then. I have to get up and walk just to do it, because I was down for so long. It messed with me a lot. ... Sometimes it hurts for me to even ride in a car. If I sit here like this for longer than five minutes my legs get sore."
The summer and fall were about continuing to progress, as have been the first two weeks of practice. The Patriots begin the season Saturday at the Lake Norman Duals in North Carolina, and Perdue will be ready.
"My emotions will be the same as really before any other tournament because I'm working my hardest to do the best I can," he said. "I feel like if I work my hardest then I should be OK. But those guys work hard, too. It's one of those things where I have to make sure I try to outwork everybody else."
He still has every intention of winning that state title, but there is still plenty of work left to finish the real journey.
"Honestly, when I was stuck in bed I thought I would never be able to do this again. I realized I really love this sport after I got back," Perdue said. "It's a hard sport but I wouldn't want to do any other sport because this one teaches you a lot.
"I've been in this stuff for too long just to call it quits."
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