Turlock defensive end Devin Bradley celebrates a stop by the Bulldogs' defense during a season-opening win over Freedom of Oakley on Aug. 23, 2019. The Bulldogs return home to face another Bulldog this Thursday -- Tracy High, its annual Dogbone rival. (Samantha Schmidt)

From rehab to glory: Christensen parlays comeback to Player of the Year award  

Ron Agostini
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Kaden Christensen lay in his recovery bed, pondered his immediate future and wondered how it would all end.

If he could play football again, how effective would he be? How long would his rehab take? Are the football gods out to get him?

“It was just another bad thing. Bad luck,” he thought. “Everything was not going my way.”

The answers, as it turned out, were all positive. Christensen, the unstoppable Escalon High senior, anchored the Cougars’ march to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI and CIF State 4A titles. Escalon could not have earned its second state championship without Christensen, FrontRowPreps.com’s selection as American Chevrolet All-Region Player of the Year.

Escalon's Kaden Christensen speeds away from a Downey defender. (Samantha Schmidt)

But to get there, Christensen climbed a steep mountain, starting Nov. 23, 2018.

Escalon was eliminated that night from the section playoffs by rival Hilmar 28-18. It was a difficult night for Christensen, who adrenalin-rushed through most of the game after getting his hand caught in a facemask.

Later at home, he awoke in awful pain that wasn't coming from his hand. By noon, he was rushed to a Modesto hospital and underwent surgery for the removal of his appendix, which had wrapped around an intestine. Later, he discovered he had fractured his hand in that facemask.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Christensen recalled. “The surgery wasn’t what I expected. I actually was very lucky.”

So began his comeback. He spent the next four days in the hospital, followed by a week at home. Even the most simple movements, the ones taken for granted, were difficult.

By February, Christensen resumed training. Only now, he was armed with teen-aged perspective: Nothing would be handed to him.

Christensen always seemed destined for great things in football. He launched his varsity career as a sophomore and returned a kick for a touchdown against Liberty, only to sustain a knee injury later that night that slowed him the rest of the season.

As a junior, he excelled through an exhausting season thrown off-schedule by the state’s smoke-filled wildfires. Escalon’s two tough losses to Hilmar left the Cougars with unfinished business and Christensen with a major physical setback.

“I didn’t think I was finished. I didn’t know how involved I would be,” Christensen said.

His weight had dropped to 160 pounds when he returned to the weightroom. Eventually, he beefed up to 185 pounds, 10 heavier than his weight as a junior. Plans for him were reshuffled. Head coach Andrew Beam shifted Christensen from a hard-hitting corner to safety, where he could still attack but didn’t have to chase wide receivers all night. That left him with fresher legs to deliver as one of Escalon’s productive running backs.

All Christensen sought was a chance to show what he can do. The two-way star delivered on that promise as a senior. His 80-yard touchdown sprint triggered Escalon’s impressive 49-20 romp over Downey, and the Cougars – led by Christensen and 21 senior teammates – were off and running.

They eventually finished 14-1 and won their last seven after a loss to Ripon. The Cougars, Ripon and Hilmar ended in a three-way dead heat for the Trans Valley League title, always a dependable training ground for the playoffs.

It took two Hilmar tacklers to bring down Escalon running back Kaden Christensen, the American Chevrolet Player of the Year. (AnnaMarie Silveira)

Escalon, eliminated by Hilmar the previous two seasons, answered with a 41-27 victory for the section title. The Cougars capped it with a 41-17 win at Pleasant Valley of Chico and, before an overflow crowd at Engel Field, a 52-21 romp in the state final over La Jolla.

Christensen’s personal comeback was complete: 1,681 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns and 578 receiving yards and nine TDs. Over three varsity years, he totaled 4,800 total yards.

His No. 3 was hard to miss the last three years. He seldom left the field and, as team captain as a senior, also was a leader in the weightroom and the classroom.

“A great finish to a great career,” praised Beam, who coached Christensen as a freshman on the JV team. “He was very similar to (2010 star) Josh Miguel. He will go down as one of the better ones (in school history) to run the football and play for Escalon.”

It was appropriate that the last time Christensen touched the football as a Cougar, he caught a 42-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ty Harris in the state final. Christensen made it all the way back, from emergency surgery to a state championship, and his story always will serve as an inspiration to future student-athletes at Escalon.

“The support system all of us have at Escalon, at the school and in the community, pushed all of us,”  he said. “Honestly, I just wanted to win with my teammates. The reward was amazing.”