If there’s anything Kellen Bartlett has learned in his time at Utah State, it’s to not take anything for granted – especially in the game of football.
This year, the senior tight end from Blue Springs, Mo., has super-senior status, but not necessarily by his own choice. Bartlett has spent three blocks of time sitting on the sidelines with various injuries.
During spring practices leading up to his junior season in 2010, Bartlett sustained a foot injury. That fall, just one game after a career-best night, his season was ended by a dislocated elbow. Then, when he thought he was back on track to lead the Aggies through his senior season, Bartlett broke his fibula in practice in the summer of 2011.
“There’s a lesson to be learned in everything in life. These experiences that we go through set us up for the real world,” Bartlett said. “When you lose the game of football, even the things you didn’t enjoy, you miss it.”
After that much struggle and unfortunate luck, a lot of people would just give up. Not Bartlett.
“There’s always room to improve. No one has ever been told they’re too good,” Bartlett said. “When I got hurt I had to step back and look at things. It made me want it more. It made me want to play more and become the best player I can possibly be.”
However, being on the outside looking in wasn’t easy for Bartlett.
“When I hurt my leg it was hard for me to show up to practice. I had to just stand there and watch what I loved,” Bartlett said. “It’s hard to go watch film and evaluate the games when you aren’t even playing at all.”
While he started out strong and supportive on the sidelines, it didn’t stay that way.
“For a while I really did have troubles with it. I was working out every single day and during practice I would do therapy,” Bartlett said. “As the season went on and the team was doing better and better, it took coaches reminding me to show up.”
Now, back with fervor, along with a plate and eight screws in his leg, Bartlett is ready to truly experience his senior season. He’s out to prove that he’s not just “the guy who always gets hurt.”
“A lot of people talk about the injuries like it’s the main thing, but that sucks. I don’t want to have that label,” Bartlett said. “I’ve played this game for 16 years, and it just so happened that I got hurt at some of the biggest moments in my life.”
So far this season, Bartlett has surpassed his catches from his junior season, notching 22 for 178 yards. He also caught a career-high eight passes in Utah State’s 27-20 overtime win against Utah – its first victory against the Utes since 1997.
Before his season-ending injury his junior year, he had 15 receptions for 222 yards. Of that total, 121 yards came from a single game. He had five receptions on the road at Nevada, including a career-long 63-yard catch for USU’s only 100-yard receiving outing of the season.
At that point, Bartlett had no idea that would be his last full game he would play for a long time.
“It’s just unlucky getting hurt. They were all kind of freaky things. The New Mexico State game was the first time I ever got hurt in a game in my entire life,” Bartlett said. “What hurt the most was that I was coming off the best game of my career.”
Because of the time he has spent at Utah State, Bartlett is a natural leader. His experience on the field, as well as in recovery, have made him a stronger man and a stronger athlete.
“My role is to just set an example on and off the field,” Bartlett said. “I have to help do whatever it takes to win football games. If that means they want me to play fullback, I’ll do it. Tight end, I’ll do it. If I need to not play, I won’t play.”
Along with teaching the specifics of the game and leading the team to wins, the Utah State coaching staff strive to help the players on the team become men.
“They don’t just want us to be great football players, but great people. They want us to live the right way. They teach us core values,” Bartlett said. “It’s nice to learn these things in this sort of environment. There’s a standard we have to live by.”
Bartlett is the first to say that being a part of this program is not easy. However, that difficulty is part of what he missed during his times of rehabilitation.
“Football is hard. It can be a grind. It’s easy to start dreading parts of it,” Bartlett said. “It’s a blessing to be out here and practice every day even though it’s hard. There’s nothing easy about this, but it’s OK. It makes you better.”
The hard work and dedication brought to the field each day has brought the team closer together.
“We’re family out here. This is the tightest I’ve ever seen a Utah State team. From offense to defense, we’re all very cohesive. We’re all brothers,” Bartlett said. “That’s powerful. If you don’t believe in each other, there’s a difference. We have the belief that we’re going to go out there and win every football game.”
After a rough couple of years, Bartlett is ready to see success. He’s back and fighting and helping the team succeed.
“I’m just thankful to have the opportunity to take the field. It’s nice to be out here and play. When you lose football, it definitely makes you realize you can’t take anything for granted,” Bartlett said. “I’ve been humbled by this game, and that’s a good thing. When you get knocked down, the only thing you can do is get back up.”
Megan Allen write for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company