Leaving an impression

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Michael Aldo's road back was a long one.
Amherst athletics photo

They say you only have one chance to make a first impression. Michael Aldo did just that. A wide-eyed first-year safety in 2008, he knew he probably wasn't going to be a starter. His role was most likely on special teams, but that didn't matter. He just wanted to get noticed. He just wanted make a play.

Seeing an Eph tailback running a toss to his right during a preseason scrimmage in Williamstown, it was Aldo's moment. He rotated to the deep middle and saw an opening. Coming straight downhill, only one thought came to mind: See what the running back sees and plug it where it leads. Barreling into the oncoming Williams player, Aldo made sure the collision caught the Amherst coaching staff's attention.

"I remember seeing him running the alley," says head coach E.J. Mills. "He made a tackle that we still talk about. It was one of the best form tackles I've ever seen in my 25 years of coaching."

Back in Williamstown for the junior varsity game the Sunday after the Jeffs' 2008 season opener against Hamilton, Aldo once again tried to make a play. But finding himself in a pile of players, he felt something happen to his hand. Toughing it out for the rest of the series, he eventually made his way to the sideline. His finger was dangling. The trainers took one look at it and knew - it was broken.

Playing football since he was eight, this was the first time Aldo had ever gotten hurt. It was frustrating, but he wasn't the type that took setbacks lightly. The following week he had surgery. Doctors placed two pins in his hand and wrapped it in a cast.

Eventually, Aldo made it back on the field, but he wasn't quite the same. Every time he hit someone, the pins in his hand moved. It was still pretty sensitive, even after the doctors removed the club prior to the season finale against Williams. He just never fell back into a rhythm playing with his "Mega-Man arm." It was a lost season. Strike one.

Aldo missed the fall 2009 semester for personal reasons, but he kept tabs on his teammates, who were having a special season. Unable to accompany the Jeffs to Williamstown as they pursued perfection, Aldo found another way to stay connected while working a shift at Best Buy. He turned every TV in the home theater department onto the NESN broadcast (much to the dismay of his manager since the game wasn't in HD).

While he isn't usually a "cheerer," Aldo couldn't help but get into the game. Seeing his friends hoist a NESCAC trophy and celebrate an 8-0 season was almost as gratifying as it would've been had he been there. Almost. As happy as he was for his fellow Jeffs, it was bittersweet and frustrating knowing he'd missed an opportunity to share in his teammates' championship experience. Strike two.

Returning to Amherst in the spring of 2010, Aldo was excited to get back to football, but his year away from the game showed. His conditioning wasn't quite there yet, nor was he moving around well. At the 2010 scrimmage at Williams, where he'd broken his hand two years earlier, he found himself on the field for a punt. It wasn't live play, so all he needed to do was get off his block. Running down the field, he slowed up. It was a dead ball and he knew he wouldn't have to make a tackle. That's when he saw someone fall toward him out of the corner of his eye.

"He landed on my knee," says Aldo. "I knew something was wrong."

Hearing close friend and teammate Kevin Ferber urge him to shake it off, Aldo slowly got to his feet and made his way to the sideline. Since he was able to jog, he didn't think it was anything serious. Probably just a sprained knee. In the locker room after the game, he saw head trainer Mark Klingensmith.

"Mark was doing the ACL test," Aldo says. "He didn't say anything to me, but he gave a look to one of the other trainers that said it all. My heart sunk right there. I pretty much knew."

An MRI exam and X-ray confirmed the demoralizing news. Aldo had a torn ACL and MCL. He was out for the year. Strike three.

Most people would have quit. Most people aren't Michael Aldo. In the training room the day after receiving the MRI results, he saw Mills. Not only did he vow not to let the injury beat him, he promised he was going to be back better and stronger than ever.

Over the next year, Aldo spent every moment he could in the training room, icing and rehabbing his knee. In the summer, his mom played the role of physical therapist, helping him stretch out and go through exercises. He eventually began running again, and during the weekends he'd meet with Ferber (who was interning in Boston) to do sprint and agility drills. The two had grown close over the years, and with news that Aldo was moving to linebacker for the 2011 season, they were thinking of ways to make plays together (and even how to celebrate afterward).

Their first chance came in the 2011 season opener at Bates. With the score tied at 7-7 and the Bobcats driving inside the Amherst 30 with less than 12 seconds remaining in the first half, Aldo sacked the quarterback and knocked the ball loose. Ferber picked it up and took it the length of the field for the score, changing the tone of the game and sparking a 20-7 win.

Able to contribute for the first time in three years, a finally healthy Aldo filled up the stat sheet - seven tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked punt. With three of his caused turnovers leading to 17 of the team's 20 points, he was named the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Week.

Using that momentum, Aldo played an integral role in Amherst's climb to the top of the NESCAC standings. With the Jeffs carrying a 7-0 mark and a chance at perfection to Williamstown, he looked to make history on the same field that had already twice ended his season.

"There's one quote by John Wooden that's always stood out to me," says Aldo. "'Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.' I knew as long as I did the little things right, I'd catch a break sooner or later."

With Amherst already leading 24-6 in the third quarter, Williams found itself pinned inside its own 10-yard line. Creeping up from his safety position, Aldo lined up outside of the right guard. On the snap, he came flying in off the edge. He was unblocked and the quarterback never saw him coming. Making the most of his clean shot, he knocked the ball loose. And who was there to fall on it in the end zone? Who else - but Ferber. For once, things were working out for Aldo on Weston Field.

"I don't think I've ever had a better feeling for a kid," says Mills. "There were so many times that he could have just said 'I'm done. This isn't meant to be.' But he stuck with it and was able to come out, perform and contribute. He was our Comeback Player of the Year."

Michael Aldo received a gift from Amherst alumnus Dave Smith, with some specific instructions.
Amherst athletics photo

Finally able to enjoy the championship that once eluded him, Aldo took time to reflect on his journey while tending bar at the 50th reunion for the Class of 1962. Striking up a conversation, Dave Smith '62, asked several students if anyone was part of the Class of 2012. Aldo spoke up and shared his story (even though he'll technically graduate in the winter of 2013).

Smith had a story of his own. Working the 50th reunion for the Class of 1912 when he was a senior, he was given a hat by an alumnus, with one directive: pass it on. Fifty years later, Smith intended to do just that. That's when Aldo made up his mind - he had to have it. The following day Smith brought the hat. They took a picture together and Smith asked Aldo to do the same thing: In 50 years, pass it on.

"It really made me realize you're a part of something so much bigger than yourself," says Aldo. "Seeing those guys and their love for Amherst made me respect and appreciate the tradition of this school."

The hat now sits tucked away in an airtight, zip-lock bag - a cherished possession Aldo hopes to one day give away. Over the years, he fought through the setbacks just for another chance to play the game he loves, with his friends - and front of his family. But now he plays for another reason - to honor those that came before him and to help those who wish to follow. His first impression on the football field may have been a big hit, but it's a lasting one as a leader that he now hopes to leave behind.

By Ben Badua
Amherst College Sports Information

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