IOWA CITY — I was leaving a Cedar Rapids eatery early Sunday afternoon, and had to wait while a fellow much younger than myself was slowly getting through the door with the use of a walker.
“I had spinal surgery,” he said apologetically, not that he owed me an explanation. “And I’ve got an ingrown toenail.”
The toe problem alone would have sent me into a spiral of self-pity.
This isn’t meant to be some dopey attempt to tell people to keep things like a one-sided football loss in perspective. Er, wait. Actually, it is, sort of. Sorry.
For all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing regarding Iowa’s 38-14 loss to Penn State Saturday night, nearly everyone on both sides emerged able to play another week. But two Hawkeyes weren’t as fortunate.
Starting offensive tackle Brandon Scherff suffered a broken fibula and dislocated ankle. A few plays later, starting offensive guard Andrew Donnal was felled by an ACL injury.
Awful stuff. It’s part of football, always has been, always will be. But still, awful stuff.
When you watch a game from the 63rd row of a stadium, a team looks less human and more like interchangeable parts. When someone goes down it’s “next man in,” as the team itself says. The show goes on.
But from behind the closed doors of Iowa’s sports medicine facility, it’s pretty human stuff when an athlete tries to work him or herself back from serious injury.
Seventy thousand people aren’t cheering players as they endure the grueling, long, and lonely process of physically rehabilitating themselves to get back to the point where they can as much as resume practicing.
“If you talk to any player who’s hurt or who has been hurt — that’s just about every player you talk to — no matter how close they stay there’s a feeling of disconnect,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz.
“There are two phases, in my mind, of being injured. You’ve got a physical thing that you have to work through. That’s not a lot of fun. And there are a lot of quiet hours that people don’t realize, be it just rehabbing or certainly doing the work to try to get back.
“And the other part of it is the mental part. Besides going through the pain and the realization you’re going to be out a while, you just can’t help but feel disconnected. You can be standing right there with everybody else, but you just don’t feel like you’re part of it.”
Scherff was becoming an excellent Big Ten tackle. Now he yields the position to Nolan MacMillan, a junior who has plenty of empathy for Scherff and Donnal.
As a red-shirt freshman, MacMillan started Iowa’s first six games in 2010. But he suffered a sports hernia, a painful groin injury that takes a long time to heal. He missed the rest of the 2010 season and all of last season.
On top of that, MacMillan said he had “a bit of a shoulder issue.” He also fractured a hand this summer, and had surgery on it before returning to practice before the season began.
But now, he’s in the lineup while two of his line-mates are not.
“It’s a little bit of frustration because you’re not going to be at the same place you were when you left,” MacMillan said. “It takes a while to get back there. I definitely do know what they’re going to be going through.”
The Hawkeyes play on. Scherff and Donnal will be back, next season. What they’re facing between now and then isn’t fun. It’s a tough, tough sport.