Here's a Brian Ferentz story I did during the 2006 Outback Bowl. It was the first time I saw the scar on his leg. It really does look like a shark bite.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When you are Brian Ferentz and you've survived a dangerous case of staph infection, seven knee operations, you're missing the MCL in your right leg and you don't have major pieces of bone in the right leg, a 300-pound noseguard looks like a speed bump.
When you are Brian Ferentz and you have holes in the bones in the right knee from what was taken out to stop the staph infection, you're also missing a significant piece of your quadriceps, and also a little bit of the hamstring, a three-hour wrestling match with a 300-pound defensive tackle sounds like a Tupperware party.
"It sounds a lot worse than it is," the 22-year-old Iowa center said.
The scar that rips down Ferentz's right leg never scared his little brothers, said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, Brian's dad. But it is a conversation piece.
"We call it the shark bite," guard Mike Elgin said. "We always joke about him getting bit by a shark."
So no wonder Ferentz delivered two remarkable seasons on Iowa's offensive line, jumping in at guard after missing four games last season, centering every significant snap this season, playing all-Big Ten caliber football, the best football of his career.
No wonder he's taken the underappreciated job of making the line calls, telling his teammates which 300-pound tackle to block and helped turn Iowa's rush offense into one of the Big Ten's best. No wonder he walks, runs, blocks, pulls and jab steps like an 18-year-old with a 70-year-old man's knee. No wonder he feels he has enough spring left in the "shark bite" to try to make a go for the NFL next summer.
Kirk Ferentz was asked if Brian's scar ever scared his youngest son, Steven.
"I don't think so," he said. "It probably scared his parents more than anybody else. It's a little grotesque. I haven't noticed anybody gawking, but it is ugly."
A lot of hands were on deck for what can only be termed a minor miracle.
Brian Ferentz went in for what was supposed to be a routine knee operation in February 2004. Staph infection set into the bone and soft tissue around the right knee. Amputation was a possibility. A return to football wasn’t.
Team doctors turned Brian’s case over to trauma surgeon Todd McKinley.
Part of Ferentz’s right knee was removed – bone, muscle, ligaments. Kirk Ferentz said a return in 2004 was “unrealistic.”
Rehabilitation was torturous and tedious. McKinley pushed and pulled. Brian made strides, dressing for last season’s game at Arizona State before finally playing in week five against Michigan State.
“He (McKinley) is a former wrestler, so his delivery is a little bit of a battlefield delivery,” Kirk Ferentz said. “But he understands athletes, he understands competitors. He never ruled it out. Basically, his attitude was, `Prove me wrong.’
“That’s what he told Brian. He said, `You have a chance. It’s going to be a tough road, but I hope you can make it.’ ”
Brian also mentioned team doctor Ned Amendola and offensive line coach Reese Morgan.
“I really couldn’t have done it without them,” Brian said. “I don’t think I could ever express how much I owe to those guys.”
Monday’s Outback Bowl will be Brian’s 20th consecutive start. The 6-foot-3, 282-pounder earned honorable mention all-Big Ten this season.
“Fortunately, he received great care, and I think it certainly gave him a new appreciation for being able to play,” Kirk Ferentz said. “All of us involved as a family really admired the way he handled it.”
The staph infection is the major story. But Brian’s knee problems began his red-shirt freshman season, when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee.
During his sophomore year, after he earned the starting job, he tore the MCL in his right knee.
That, in and of itself, is a ton of knee trauma. Consecutive injuries like that, and maybe a guy starts thinking it’s not going to happen for him, that there’s nothing left to give.
Those thoughts never found a home in Brian’s head. He was asked if he ever became depressed. He laughed.
“That’s a big word,” he said. “Certainly, there are some players who probably suffer from real depression. But that’s a clinical thing. I’m not Tom Cruise (the actor, who’s expressed his thoughts on psychiatry recently) or anything. That’s real.
“You certainly feel disconnected from what you’re used to doing. But we have a great support staff. I was never depressed.”
Last season, Brian said he might have only one season left on his right knee. This week in Florida, he said his leg is stronger and pain-free. No morning creakiness. No unexplained pains.
“My leg really came along,” Ferentz said. “I’m sitting in a different spot than when I said that a year ago.”
He’s full-go on trying to extend his career to the NFL. He plans to play in the Hula Bowl in January.
He wears shorts all the time, but he’ll certainly wear them on the beach in Hawaii. People will see his “shark bite.” He’s thankful most are too shy to ask.
“I was a little self-conscious about it after it happened,” he said. “The longer I’ve had it, the more I don’t really care.”Brian Ferentz was broken, but he was always whole.