What I Lost to Win: Tagging a Trophy after Leg Amputation

What I Lost to Win: Tagging a Trophy after Leg Amputation
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Finding Triumph in the Face of Tragedy

The morning of Sept. 14, 2015, my father and I were putting the finishing touches on a ground blind. Dad had spent the last couple weeks designing a blind perfect for a bowhunting amputee, something I would soon be. A certain anxiety hung over us that morning; it seemed we didn’t know what to say to each other. As we got closer to finishing, words became fewer. Looking back, I can understand why. A father, scared for his son; a son, scared about his future. The next day, I would have my right leg amputated below the knee. This blind brought us closer together even though we were unable to share words.

Thirty-seven years ago, I was born with Bilateral Congenital Vertical Talus (CVT), better known as “rocker bottom feet.” Despite years of failed attempts at reconstructive surgery, CVT had stolen enough from me, including a college football career and my personal joy. For the last 10 years, my mobility had significantly declined, and I was living with severe pain, 24 hours a day, in both legs.

We finally finished the blind; it was time to head home, pack and drive to the motel near the hospital in Columbus, Ohio. As I got ready to leave and hugged my dad, through tear-filled eyes, I choked out the words, “Dad, I am so scared.”

The 15th of September, I became an amputee. I spent the next four days in Grant Medical Center. The next two weeks, I stayed at my parents’ home in Southeast Ohio to begin the healing process before going to my friend Jason’s home. Jason had understood how challenging this decision was for me and had suggested I move in with him two months prior to surgery so, when I was ready, I could move back in with him and feel I had some independence.

Over the years, bowhunting had become a very important part of my life, and this would be the first year since eighth grade I would miss opening day. Knowing it would be a few weeks before I could even think about hunting was very hard on me. Sitting in my parents’ house nine days after my surgery was the first time I had depressing thoughts about my new life as an amputee. Was I ever going to be able to do what I had done the past 20 years, the thing I loved the most?

Back in the Woods

Saturday morning, bow season started without me. Sunday morning, I was struggling with my emotions when my great friend, Jason, called to check on me. He could tell I was having a difficult time, so he said, “I’m going to come visit, and we can shoot bows.”

I replied, “I am by myself, so I would like your company, but I don’t know about the shooting.” I was having my own pity party. Jason must have sensed that and arrived shortly. It wasn’t long until he brought up the idea of shooting our bows again. Shrugging my shoulders, I said, “Maybe in a little bit.” Within a few minutes, he asked again, and I finally gave in. Jason knew it would help me get my mind going in a more positive direction. It only took 20 minutes of shooting my bow from my electric wheelchair until I felt much better. Archery has always been a release for me, and this time was no different. I realized as an amputee that I was still going to be able to accurately shoot my bow. I now realized the thing I loved the most was going to help me in my healing process. This change in my life was going to turn out OK, and I was going to adapt and overcome this new challenge.

I shot as much as I could the next two weeks. I was shooting great and felt I could make an ethical harvest out to 40 yards while sitting down and balancing my weight on one foot. Now I just had to wait until I felt I could make it to the deer blind and have my leg up for a couple hours without causing any harm to the residual limb, which was still very tender from the operation. That day came on Oct. 9, 2015. Jason and my dad loaded me into the UTV, and Jason took me to the blind. I was only able to sit with my residual limb up in the blind for about an hour and a half after a bumpy ride, and I had to end the hunt 25 minutes before the sun set and the deer would really be moving well. It was hard for me to accept I still had a long way to go before I could hunt as hard as I was used to.

That evening, the pain spiked way up, the incision that was holding my skin together started to open in one spot and I wondered if I had pushed it a little too far. However, I came to understand something that evening as I lay in bed with my residual limb throbbing. Although this season would be my most challenging yet, it would also be my most blessed. I would be back to the basics of just seeing the blessing of getting to hunt, and I would appreciate the sunrises and sunsets a little more than I ever had. That night, while lying in bed, I set a goal to harvest a mature buck before I received a prosthetic leg.

My next hunt would not come until Oct. 20. It took 11 days to let the incision close up, so I took that time to heal and shoot my bow a little each day. Starting Oct. 20, I hunted six or seven days a week, mornings and evenings. I was often humbled and wondered if the goal I had set was a little farfetched. Each hunt, my father had to load everything for me, help me into the UTV and drive me to the blind. From where Dad would park, I would crutch to the blind, get set up with his help, then call him later when I was ready to be picked up. Over the course of several weeks, I saw several shooter bucks — always out of range and moving through areas I was unable to reach on crutches. This was very frustrating, seeing mature deer and knowing if I could just walk I could have moved a treestand, waited on the right wind and had a good chance to tag out.

Nathan Hale shooting from wheelcair

As the frustration grew, something happened that changed everything. I started to receive support on social media from so many friends, as well as people I had never even met. People were telling me how I was inspiring them, changing their outlook, and they were seeing their problems in a more positive light. Every day, different people took time to lift me up and encourage me so I could keep grinding toward my goal. Keith Carroll, owner of South Paw Taxidermy, sent me a message on social media offering a free European or shoulder mount. Nick Morgan, owner of Triple Threat Outdoors, set up my bow for next to nothing and gave me a T-shirt from his shop the first time we ever met; we have remained friends ever since. Who does that?!?!

As November arrived and the rut kicked into high gear, I felt good about my chances to connect on a mature buck. However, the one thing that can mess everything up is Mother Nature. Apparently, she was not as excited about my goal as I and so many other people were, because it was hot the first two and a half weeks of November. Temperatures on many days would reach the 70s, which kept the deer in their beds. Finally, by the third week of November, the temperatures dropped and the deer were moving. I saw two mature bucks that were using the winter wheat field behind my parents’ house to feed and check does to see if they were in estrus. With those sightings, a plan was made and put into action. I knew my time was running out. In one week, Ohio’s shotgun season would open; after that, it would be very hard to get it done with my bow.

A Little Deception

As I mentioned, I had a plan: to set up a doe decoy in the corner of the wheat field where I had seen other does feeding and mature bucks checking them.

The afternoon of Nov. 24, I finally had a perfect wind to try my plan. My father loaded all my gear and the doe decoy into the UTV and took me to the ground blind set in the corner of a 40-acre wheat field surrounded by hardwoods. After he got me settled, I pointed to where I wanted the decoy set in a spot that would offer me a good shot if a buck approached the “doe” from the rear, as they normally do. Around 4:30, the deer started to hit the field to feed. Four does fed within 15 yards of my decoy. Now I just needed a mature buck to step out. Around 5 o’clock, I looked left and saw a shooter buck step out about 180 yards away. I could tell by his posture he had more than feeding on his mind; within seconds, he started moving in my direction. As he closed the distance, walking steadily and grunting with every step, I remember thinking, Lord, now is our chance to achieve the goal we set and show others what is possible and what bowhunting can do for someone.

With the buck now at 40 yards and closing, I hooked my release on my string loop and focused. With the buck at 30 yards, the does feeding in front of me decided they were not in the mood to be dogged by the buck and trotted off into the woods to my right. I quickly turned my eyes back to the buck and saw he was committed to the decoy. He walked into my shooting lane, matching a grunt for every step. I drew my bow and stopped him not three yards from the rear end of my doe decoy, set 21 yards away. I released the arrow and saw the Nockturnal lighted nock travel through the lungs of the buck and into the green winter wheat behind him. I watched him run into the woods and listened for any sounds of him crashing down.

That’s when I was startled by the vibration of my phone. In the excitement of the hunt, I had forgotten I was within binocular view of my parents’ house. My dad had watched the entire thing go down with my mom and one of my older brothers.

“Hello,” I answered.

“You smoked him, didn’t you?” Dad asked.

I told him the shot felt great, maybe a touch high, but definitely double lungs. I told him to give it about 30 minutes, then bring the UTV down and we could get on the blood trail. After that, I called Jason to tell him I had made a good shot on a mature buck. After he congratulated me, he headed over to help in the recovery. I sat there alone for 15 minutes and prayed. I thanked God for His peace. I thanked Him for His creation, and I thanked Him for this buck and everything it meant to me as I started this new journey in my life as an amputee. My prayer was interrupted by the sound of the UTV approaching. Dad enthusiastically helped me out of the blind and onto my crutches, where we would share a hug that was so much more certain about my future than the hug we shared the day before my amputation. With tear-filled eyes, I was able to say, “Thank you, Dad. That deer is as much yours as it is mine. I could have never even made it to the blind without your help.”

Mission Accomplished

After loading everything up, we headed to the house to meet Jason and my brother Brian. I reluctantly agreed to stay at the house while they went and recovered the deer. The area where the buck had gone was very thick, and it just wasn’t a good idea for me to crutch through it.

When Dad, Brian and Jason left, I visited with Mom and anxiously waited on a text from Jason. As time passed, I became worried. I hadn’t heard from Jason, so I called him. He told me, “We are on blood, but he is not bleeding like you’d think he would be. I’ll be in touch when we find him.”

More time passed, and finally I just couldn’t take sitting around anymore. I told Mom I was going to crutch out to my truck and drive home to get out of my hunting clothes, and I would be right back. As I made it to my truck and opened the door, I heard my mother yell from the back door, “They found him!” I raced back to the house as fast as crutches can carry a man and called my dad. He said the shot was in the upper lungs; it just took a few yards for the blood to fill up and start coming out of the wound. They would be in after they got the buck cleaned out and put the tag I gave him on it.

Nathan Hale with whitetail buck

I waited patiently for the sound of the UTV, and as soon as I heard the familiar rumble of the motor coming, Mom and I headed down to the garage to meet Dad, Jason and Brian. I thanked them for recovering the buck, and then I laid my hands on my prize — a 9-pointer with a broken brow tine on his right side. In an instant, all the uncertainty of Sept. 14, 2015, was made certain, and all the fear was washed away in the exultation of victory. Goal accomplished!

This story is important to me for two reasons. First is the people who cared for and supported me during the biggest change of my life. We all came together and achieved an awesome goal. Second is to show the healing power of the outdoors and bowhunting. This story isn’t about what I accomplished; it’s about how bowhunting and being in the outdoors can make everything right in our lives when we are up against our biggest challenges.

From the 2015 archery season, other dreams were born. I have since started to do some public speaking, sharing my whole story (loss of college football, a few years of extremely negative and unhealthy living to becoming a happy, healthy and determined amputee) with athletic teams, individuals, churches and college classes. If, in any way, people are inspired by what I have been through and how I have chosen to live a life of no limits in the outdoors as an amputee, that makes it all worth it. Through this hunt, I came to see that, no matter how much I’ve lost, in the end, I can always win.

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