MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) -With talent and passion, Dante Love energized Ball State and helped the Cardinals start 4-0 this season.
Now with Love sidelined, the Cardinals hopes he'll inspire them to greater goals.
After a tough week in which the senior receiver was carted off the field during last Saturday's game at Indiana, spent five hours in surgery and learned that a spinal cord injury has probably ended his football career, Ball State faces its toughest challenge of the season.
It's the first game without Love. Ball State host Kent State on Saturday.
``We just have to stay focused on the things we can control,'' defensive end Brandon Crawford said. ``The things that have happened with Dante are unfortunate, but we all go into this game knowing it can happen to any of us.''
Football players understand the risks of this violent game.
ir best athletes and team leaders can no longer play.
The news about Love's future came Monday, two days after Ball State celebrated a win over Indiana - its first victory in school history over a BCS-conference team. School officials announced Love would lead a normal, healthy life - likely without football - after rehabilitation.
And while they've had nearly a full week to adapt, the delicate balancing act of moving forward is a major test.
This week's game notes from the team's media staff are a perfect illustration of the Cardinals split hopes.
The first page contained the usual tidbits about Ball State and Mid-American Conference foe Kent State (1-3). Flip the page and there's a graphic reading: Ball State's Dante Love in our thoughts and prayers.
Publicly, players and coaches have stated the focus is football even as they acknowledge keeping tabs on Love's recovery and planning hospital visits.
``We have great leaders on this team and we've got a lot of experience,'' running back MiQuale Lewis said. ``Everyone has Dante in the back of our minds, but we want to play through Dante and play for Dante.''
The Cardinals, off to their best start in two decades, have already cleared one major hurdle.
When Love fell to the ground with 10:45 left in the second quarter last Saturday, Ball State was on the verge of having its lead cut to 14-13.
dinals rallied and won 42-20.
``It wasn't tough to go out and play (against Indiana),'' tight end Darius Hill said. ``It was tough seeing him go off the field like that because he's one of my best friends.''
Coach Brady Hoke describes his star receiver as gutty and a fighter, and teammates continually referred to the characteristics that made Love such a locker room favorite. They called him competitive, determined, focused and fun.
Hoke spent much of Saturday night and Sunday at the hospital, visiting Love rather than the usual coaching ritual of watching game film. Players spent much of Monday's media availability answering questions about their fallen friend instead of Kent State or Indiana win.
The senior-laden Cardinals will pray, hope and let the doctors work with Love as they attempt to honor Love by bringing home Ball State's first MAC title since 1996 and reach a second straight bowl game for the first time in history.
``He will always be there in our thoughts,'' Hoke said. ``But our kids are pretty daggone resilient and we have a mature team. Our guys know what the focus is and what we're playing for.''

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