January 5, 2014 Updated: January 5, 2014 at 5:05 pm
On a shelf in Jackson Spalding's bedroom, a yellow track shoe waits to be worn again.
It can't. Not just yet, anyway.
Affixed to the shoe by orange tape, a scrap sheet reminds the Discovery Canyon senior all he needs to know about his future. It lists two landmark dates, the bottom of which indicates the main goal, when he hopes to stand tall again at the top of the 4A track and field world in discus and shot put.
"Six months from surgery then two weeks to state."
That's the caption above the photo on his Facebook page. On April 28 - a date circled in yellow highlighter - Spalding will observe the six-month anniversary since ACL surgery to repair his left knee. Two weeks later, a May 15 date underlined in neon pink marks when the state track and field championships will commence at Lakewood's Jeffco Stadium.
When he won both throwing titles at last spring's state meet, Spalding, also a 6-foot-3, 270-pound offensive and defensive tackle on the school's football team, headed into the summer with unlimited optimism.
Besides excelling in track, he hoped to help the Thunder's football team to greater heights, still stinging from a first-round loss in the 2012 3A playoffs.
And things were humming along quite nicely for the Thunder, who at 5-1, entered league play fresh off a nail-biting win over rival The Classical Academy the week before.
Life for Jackson Spalding couldn't get much better.
Things changed dramatically Oct. 4 at Lewis-Palmer.
"I was blocking my guy downfield, and I went down to put my weight on my left foot," Spalding said. "I felt the pressure and the kneecap twisting. I heard the pop and kind of knew once it happened that it was pretty bad."
In an instant, Spalding's short-term life changed. His football season was over. So, too, was his last chance to wrestle.
But to just let someone else take the top step on the podium in the shot put and discus? Only if someone else beats him. Spalding is determined to work his way back to top form, just in time to defend his titles a few months down the road.
"He's a smart kid, and he understands this isn't the end," said Shawn Mitchell, the Discovery Canyon football coach who transitions to throws coach for track and field. "He understands that he can recover from this and go on. He's very upbeat about it now. He was devastated when it first happened. In his mind, he was thinking, 'This is it, there goes everything.' But with positive reinforcement, he knows this is not it."
This isn't Spalding's first setback, which gives him peace of mind that he'll return to competition stronger, not only physically, but also mentally.
Two years ago, Spalding suffered a broken femur playing football. Last wrestling season, a shoulder injury kept him from competing at the state meet in Denver.
"Injuries are just a part of me, I guess," Spalding said. "I've gotten hurt so much, it's just another bump in the road. I think everyone, at some point, should get hurt. I'm not saying that to be mean, but it gives you a lesson. Some time, stuff happens. You have to change your game plan."
Now, his game plan consists of small goals. At six weeks, he could finally walk without a brace. While working through twice-a-week physical therapy treatments, Spalding approaches his next milestone, jogging, an activity that wouldn't excite most people.
While April 28 marks the sixth-month mark since going under the knife, Spalding hopes to enter his first meet by late March, giving him little more than a month to post throws among Class 4A's top 18 to qualify for the state meet.
"For me, jogging means I'm that much closer to throwing again," Spalding said. "I just have to be patient and take it one day at a time. There's not much else you can do. I don't want to re-tear it and be done. I'm going to take it slow, do my PT, get my knee back and be as ready as I can be."
His work ethic and attitude already have garnered praise from those who don't get a chance to see him every day.
"He is a great young man who has a great attitude as he tackles his rehabilitation," Thunder athletic director Sharon Lauer said. "I know he is focused, and believe me, he is in the driver's seat as he is one determined young man."
Determined enough to stay the course. No shortcuts or magic bullets. With that in mind, he knows that soon, he won't have to only look at the yellow shoe on his bedroom shelf anymore.