TOLONO — Truth be told, Mitch Negangard is not a huge pumpkin pie fan.
“I’ve been burnt out on it,” Negangard said. “I’ve been eating it since I was a little kid.”
He’s had ample opportunity to sample pies.
His family has operated the Negangard Pumpkin Patch, in Sidney, for nearly 30 years. It’s a 15-acre plot that annually produces thousands of pumpkins, squash and gourds.
When a family-run business grows that volume, it also means family members assist in the harvest.
For Mitch Negangard, a four-year football letterman for Unity’s Final Four team, the typical fall schedule revolves around a Friday night football game, a Saturday morning film session and then helping pick pumpkins by hand for hours, loading them onto a rack wagon.
This year’s harvest lasted six weekends.
“I’ve learned the value of a dollar and good hard work,” Negangard said. “It’s a college fund for me and my brother (Kyle).”
It has become a way of life since he was 5.
“There are times when Mitch would get home from practice at 6 and work in the patch until 8,” mother Pam Negangard said. “Then, of course, on the weekends he would work all day picking pumpkins.”
When Mitch Negangard was a freshman at Unity High School, he caught the eye of head coach Scott Hamilton. He was elevated to the varsity.
“At that time, he was a little small for a varsity guy, but you could tell he was a football guy,” Hamilton said. “You can tell the kids with a passion and the attitude to play.”
In the 2009 state tournament program, Negangard was listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds. He’s now grown into a solid, 6-1, 205-pounder.
The work ethic Negangard showed in football was the one he learned while toiling in the pumpkin patch.
“It humbles you,” Negangard said.
Negangard is a three-sport athlete who — when he had to pick — made a commitment to football.
That decision became necessary prior to his junior year. A shoulder injury that had troubled him since he was a sophomore was diagnosed as a torn labrum. Surgery was required to repair the damage.
The recovery time wouldn’t be quick.
“They said it would be a six-month deal,” Negangard said.
He could have had the operation prior to the school year, but that option wasn’t appealing.
“Football has always been my favorite,” Negangard said. “I chose to miss basketball.”
He played all football season with the injured shoulder and played well enough to earn News-Gazette All-Area special mention accolades.
He had grown accustomed to the pain.
“I knew something was wrong my sophomore year,” Negangard said. “We had to wrap it before each game, and it would pop out of place.”
The surgery was a success, but it forced Negangard to be a spectator throughout basketball and much of the baseball season when he was a junior.
When he returned, it was again as an impact player and a team leader. In the third week of his senior year in football, he rushed for 211 yards against Central A&M.
It was a game he could not finish.
He suffered a knee injury that left him with one immediate thought.
“At the time, I felt my career was over,” Negangard said. “I knew something terrible had happened.”
When he had to be helped off the field, Hamilton understood the severity.
“Mitch is such a tough kid, and when I saw the amount of pain, we were concerned,” Hamilton said.
Up in the stands, his parents didn’t know what to think.
“I think any parent who sees their kid get injured has that dreaded sick feeling in the pit of their stomach,” Pam Negangard said. “I just kept saying ‘please don’t let it be serious.’ He worked really hard to get ready for the season, and he would have been devastated if he was not able to play.”
The injury turned out not to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament but a tear in the medial collateral ligament. Instead of a season-ending injury, Negangard faced four weeks of rehabilitation with no surgery.
He was cleared, and hopeful of playing, three weeks later. Hamilton, however, kept his two-way starter (fullback/linebacker) on the sidelines an additional week.
“It was a matter of being smart and understanding our chances for success in the postseason,” Hamilton said. “You’re trying to make sure you’re doing what’s right for the kid.
“We error more on the cautious side. We knew it was best in the long run to take one more week off.”
Though Negangard told Hamilton, “I can play,” he couldn’t argue about taking the comeback slowly.
“Ultimately, deep down, I knew he was making the right decision,” Negangard said. “It was a pretty smart move, so I’d be 100 percent when I came back.”
He returned in Week 7, at Monticello, but in a limited capacity. Negangard was withheld from the offense and focused on defense.
“A big question was whether I’d be a step slower or a little weaker,” Negangard said. “The first game back, I was a little nervous.”
Wearing a protective brace, he resumed playing in the manner he was accustomed, “with no letdowns and no regrets,” he said.
Negangard has played well, but Hamilton said, “I hope his best game is still ahead of him.”
The injury didn’t prevent Negangard from helping at the pumpkin patch in September and October, though it altered his assignment.
“I was put on truck duty (as a driver) for a couple of weeks,” he said.
Hamilton said Negangard’s absence in football extended beyond his contributions as a player.
“Probably more difficult than losing Mitch the player was losing his leadership, his desire,” Hamilton said. “He’s an emotional and vocal leader. People had to identify different roles. In the end, it made us better.”
Negangard said he had exemplary role models during his varsity stint as a freshman.
“I had cousins who were seniors, Jordan and Ben Reinhart, and they taught me the ways,” Negangard said. “Have a good attitude, set your goals high and try to achieve those goals. They set the tone for me.”
Unity’s program — which has become the benchmark for area success — is in the state semifinals for an unparalleled fourth straight year in Class 3A.
The Rockets match their 11-1 record against Greenville’s 11-1 mark in a 1 p.m. game Saturday at Hicks Field. The current Unity seniors have the most football wins for their four years (46) and are the first class from the school with four semifinal berths.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but unfortunately it goes by pretty quick,” Negangard said. “A lot of our success has to do with how good our coaches are. They bring a lot of energy to all of the practices.
“We are one big family.”
Speaking of family, Negangard wouldn’t mind if he had less time to spend with his next fall during the pumpkin harvest.
“Hopefully, I’ll be playing (football) games on Saturdays,” said Negangard, whose college options are still open.
The prospects of harvesting another 10,000-plus pumpkins finds Negangard thinking of something a bit more enjoyable.
“I’d rather do the football two-a-days,” he said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.