IOWA CITY — Tyler Nielsen faced down two forces of nature in the last year. He shot one and considers it a trophy and lunch. The other remains a work in progress.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound outside linebacker spent his spring break in the dirt and scrub of Arkansas, hunting wild boars. He got one, too. It was about 150 pounds, not quite big enough for the tusky trophy but it was dinner for a couple nights.
“It’s not quite like hogs up here,” Nielsen said. “It’s pretty good eating, decent.”
The other force was the broken neck he suffered at some point in October last season. The best Nielsen can do is “at some point.” He first suffered the injury with a hit on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on Oct. 16. He played the entire Wisconsin game with no problems.
Then at some point during Iowa’s 37-6 victory over Michigan State, after the adrenalin wore off, the pain set in.
“There was a play with Denard Robinson, that’s when it first hurt,” said Nielsen, a fifth-year senior from Humboldt. “I don’t know if that’s when it broke or that’s what started it. That was the first pain. After that, I just wasn’t thinking about it.
“I was just thinking about getting the win and playing. You have so much adrenalin when you’re out there on the field. You’re not really thinking about what hurts and what doesn’t hurt. You’re just thinking about the game.”
He didn’t have it checked out after the game.
“I just thought it was jammed and just a sore neck,” said Nielsen, who made 42 tackles, including 4.5 for loss. “I’ve had a sore neck before. It hurt a little bit, but it wasn’t anything I thought was serious.”
Then, there was the Wisconsin game. Then there was the Michigan State game. At halftime, Nielsen went to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for an X-ray. It came up negative. The fractured vertebrae couldn’t be seen between his shoulder blades.
“Kicking their butt,” Nielsen said about getting through the beginning of the Michigan State game. ”Maybe the adrenalin wore off when we were up 34-6. There was probably a play where it hurt. When you’re out there on the field, you’re not thinking about what hurts and what doesn’t.”
Eventually, you do have to listen to your body.
That’s not always easy. These guys are high achievers in athletics. Every one of their bedrooms at home is filled with trophies. The genetics are accidental and essential, but you still need a key for the ignition.
Team and individual goals and doing your job are the drivers for a lot of Iowa players. When Nielsen went down, Iowa’s linebacker corps was down to the nub. True freshman James Morris was already in at middle linebacker for Jeff Tarpinian (stinger) when Nielsen was hurt. Jeremiha Hunter missed Michigan State with a knee injury. That nagged at him, too.
The starting linebackers against Michigan State included Morris and redshirt freshman Shane DiBona.
“The young guys filled in pretty well,” Nielsen said. “It’s unfortunate they had to be thrown in there so young, but they did a good job and they’re continuing to do a good job.”
Sometimes, these guys want their bodies to shut up and go along with it. When cornerback Shaun Prater discussed his bout with rhabdomyolysis this week, he said his first instinct was to push through the soreness. The discolored urine set off a red flag he couldn’t ignore.
“When it first happened, I was having some of the dark urine and I thought maybe I should just drink some water and in the next couple days this stuff would go by,” Prater said. “I thinking, though, what if I didn’t tell the trainers and something bad did actually happen?
“I started thinking about my family. I started thinking about my mom. I thought the best thing to do was go ahead, go in and talk to the trainers and tell them what was going on.”
Nielsen’s neck finally told him it had had enough in the second quarter of the Michigan State game. It hurt to run, it hurt to lift his arms and it hurt to breathe.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t run or breathe without any pain, so I figured I better come out,” Nielsen said.
The rehabilitation wasn’t horrible. It was wearing a neck brace for more than two months (10 weeks, to be exact) that was horrible. He needed CT scans to check the progress, but couldn’t have too many of those because of the radiation and the proximity of the thyroids in the neck area.
So, it was a slow process that dragged on for a few more weeks than Nielsen thought.
“It was like getting out of prison or something,” he said of the day he was able to peel it off for the last time. “My neck was like, OK, we’re good to go. I can actually move my head now.”
When Nielsen finally was able to live life without the brace in February, all of his other injuries from the season kicked in, including a sore hamstring and sore shoulders. His body reacting to the catching up was the pain.
Right now, Nielsen is doing everything in practice, including the physical stuff, the 9 on 7 and inside run. No live scrimmages, but everything else is a go.
Life is back to near normal, at least normal enough to hunt wild boar in Arkansas. (Nielsen added that quarterback James Vandenberg also went on the trip and got skunked.)
The neck brace? It’s still around, but, like the wild boar meat, it’s not long for this world.
“I haven’t had a ceremonial burn yet,” Nielsen said. “Maybe after the first game or when I’m done playing football, I’ll get rid of it somehow.”
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