I might be a little biased here, but two of my favorite people I’ve covered in my 10 years on the beat are on this list.
1) Bruce Nelson (1999-02)
Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote after visiting Bruce and his family at their Emmetsburg farm:
EMMETSBURG – Bruce Nelson is driving, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman in his brother’s Dodge Intrepid.
It’s a snug fit.
We are a click north of Emmetsburg on Highway 4, among the grids and vectors and lines of northwest Iowa cornfields. The idea is to explore the Emmetsburg that took Nelson to the University of Iowa football team, to find the places where one of the best Hawkeye football players grew up.
He has been at the wheel maybe five minutes. We are on the way to a visit with his chiropractor, Dr. Verland Rients, in Graettinger. The question is how long has Nelson been seeing Dr. Rients?
The answer takes us in a different direction.
“Since I was run over by the hayrack,” said Nelson, a senior.
Whoa, stop right there.
“Run over? Hayrack?” the passenger asked.
“What’s a hayrack? And, wow, that must’ve done some real damage.”
“Sure, it hurt,” Nelson said. “It was like running into a brick wall. I had no air in my lungs. I couldn’t breathe.”
The hayrack story unfolds during the rest of the day. Nelson’s parents, Dick and Ann Marie, cringe a little at hearing it again. Can you blame them?
Nelson was 5 when it happened. He was goofing around with brother, Ric, five years older. Their feet were dangling off the wagon. Ric shot Bruce a look that said, “Leave me alone, little bro,” and Bruce walked back to take his seat. On the way, he fell through an opening in the front.
The front left wheel rolled over his chest. The left rear wheel stopped.
“He was shook up,” said Dick, a tall, slender, quiet man. “Well, we were all shook up. But he was fine. He was OK.”
Something made Dick Nelson stop the tractor. Maybe Ric’s yell. Maybe the bump you feel when you run over something. Maybe the
innate sense of danger parents – good parents who look out for and love their children – just seem to have.
Anyway, the left rear wheel stopped.
“Right there,” Nelson said, pointing to an imaginary spot just outside his left thigh.
Dick grabbed him by the feet and pulled him up. Bruce couldn’t catch his breath. He breathed in, deep down into his lungs, and couldn’t find that
click that reels you back to reality.
Finally after a minute or two of gulps, the kid was OK. He did get to ride up on the tractor with dad the rest of the day.
It was a good thing the rear wheel stopped. All the hay in the wagon was stacked in the back, so all the weight was there, not in the front, not over the front left wheel that rolled over 5-year-old Bruce Nelson’s chest.
Fearing reproach from Mom, the boys went about their chores.
Did you know that Nelson was voted co-MVP of the 2002 offense? That’s kind of a big deal. He was a first-team all-American by the Football Writers Association of America (let’s face it, those people know what they’r talking about — kidding, kidding). He was a Rimington Trophy finalist. He was drafted i the second round of the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. A hip injury ended his career prematurely. (I have no doubt he’d still be playing.)
I talked to him for a story I did in 2007 about Iowa’s O-line learning on the job. He’s back in Emmetsburg farming and working with the high school team.
2) Brian Ferentz (2003-05)
I know there are better Brian Ferentz stories out there. I know Press-Citizen Hawkeye beat writer Andy Hamilton did an excellent one back in 2005.
But here’s mine. I got into it during the Outback Bowl week. I’m running the whole thing because I didn’t see a logical cut off.
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
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.
Ferentz earned the Hayden Fry “Extra Heartbeat” Award that season. He was also an all-Big Ten honorable mention. He made the Atlanta Falcons practice squad for one season and is now in personnel for the New England Patriots.
3) Rob Bruggeman (2007-08)
You know, when I write big stories on centers, you know they’re good. Or at least, you’d think they would be.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece I did last year on Rob Bruggeman.
IOWA CITY — This is the time Rob Bruggeman can joke about his Beanie Baby collection. He was 12, give him a break.
This is the time he can run out of the Kinnick Stadium tunnel and have it mean something. This is the time Bruggeman can be an Iowa football player, starting center, someone who means something on game day.
This is the time he does interviews and learns that a lifelong friend has revealed to reporters his various odd collections, including Beanie Babies, Pez heads and shoes.
This is the time he gave five years of his life to reach. This is not the time to ask the the 22-year-old Cedar Rapids Washington graduate to look back and give deep, wistful answers to the tear-jerker questions.
This is the time for Rob Bruggeman to play football. That’s about it, really.
“I never expected anything,” Bruggeman said. “The big thing here for me was to come in and try to play. If they wanted to give me a scholarship, that’s fine. If they wanted to play me, then even better.”
Bruggeman’s story at Iowa is five years old, so you know there’s a twist or two.
There was the day in April 2007 when his body went one way and his knee went the other during a workout in the indoor practice facility. He tore an ACL and MCL. At that point, he was still a walk-on.
Oh yeah, there’s that part, too.
He came out of Washington with no scholarship offers. No partial scholarship offers. No real interest from Iowa Conference schools in Division III.
“The main reason I came here is they were the most honest with me,” Bruggeman said. “They told me the whole time there was a chance I’d have a scholarship, but probably not.”
The day he tore up his knee, Coach Kirk Ferentz gave him a scholarship. Bittersweet moment, right?
This is the part of the movie when the rock music kicks in and the inspirational recovery montage starts.
Bittersweet? Try just plain bitter. Bruggeman gladly and gratefully accepted the scholarship, but he was more PO’d. Playing was that much further away. Remember, he said it at the top, it was about playing, not about a scholarship.
“It’s been a conversation we’ve had,” said Chuck Bruggeman, Rob’s dad. “It was never the intent to go to the University of Iowa to get a scholarship. It was to go to the University of Iowa to play football. Then he wanted to be somebody who played at a level where they’re impacting the game.
“Yeah, he was really irritated when he got injured. He was on the path where I think he was going to achieve what he wanted.”
He was. Ferentz has said that he considered Bruggeman, a 6-foot-3, 290-pounder, a starter going into the 2007 season. Bruggeman did play last year, seeing handfuls of series in Iowa’s final three games after doctors cleared him to play.
Bruggeman ran a close No. 2 to Rafael Eubanks, a two-year starter, at center last spring.
This fall, Bruggeman broke through and claimed the job. He’ll make his second start today against Florida International. Eubanks has shifted to left guard.
So this is where the hero overcomes, the big moment. Well, yeah, but the really big moments, where Bruggeman put himself in position to earn a shot at a role as a fifth-year senior starter, happened in Iowa’s weight room. They happened when he pushed iron and ran all the sprints, shuttles and agility drills.
He went to Iowa in the 250-pound range. He now owns the best bench press among centers during Ferentz’s 10 years at Iowa, 475 pounds. That’s five more than Outland Trophy tackle Robert Gallery did while in Iowa City.
“He was constantly getting stronger and his times (sprints and shuttles) kept going down,” Chuck Bruggeman said. “If he started peaking at those kinds of things, he might have had doubts. It kept going and he knew it would eventually pay out and I think it has.”
These grunt moments in the weight room don’t rate big drama. But without them, we never find out about the Beanie Baby collection. Oh, and the Hawkeyes don’t have a center the coach seems totally giddy over.
Remember, Ferentz pulled the trigger on a scholarship when Bruggeman sat in the training room with a knee that needed reconstruction.
“I think of him as a three-year starter, because of the way he acts and practices,” Ferentz said. “I thought that (the offer) might make him feel a little better, and know that he earned that. I didn’t want him to think that we were throwing him to the curb there.”
Bruggeman ended up being a permanent captain last season, a second-team all-Big Ten pick and an all-academic Big Ten pick. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and will be trying to win a spot when camp opens later this month.
Honorable mention: Mike Elgin. Guard or center, Elgin deserves a spot on this list. He was the center for the 2004 Big Ten co-champion and is still on the cusp of the NFL. The last time I talked to Mike, he also had a job lined up in engineering at the John Deere Dubuque Works. He was one of the smarter players I can remember, carrying a 3.9-something in an engineering major while playing Big Ten offensive line at a high level.