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IOWA CITY — Active football players usually leave discussions about head injuries to others.
Dwelling on what happened or what might happen? There’s an old saying in sports. Stop thinking so much, you’re hurting the team.
What is remembered most about the Iowa-Nebraska game last November is the Hawkeyes winning to cap a 12-0 regular season. But you may also recall a first-quarter play when Iowa outside linebacker Ben Niemann got the bad end of a helmet-to-helmet collision with teammate Josey Jewell.
Niemann had Nebraska running back Terrell Newby wrapped up after Newby caught a pass for a 2-yard gain. Jewell came flying in to help Niemann finish the play and maybe cause a fumble. Instead, he smashed into his teammate. It’s a chaotic sport, and even its best players aren’t always precise.
For the next few minutes, the sight of Niemann being tended to by trainers was unnerving.
“He looks very woozy,” announcer Adam Amin somberly said on ABC’s telecast. “This is a scary sight right now. Certainly not going to speculate as to what might be wrong, but it just looks … looks bad for the sophomore out of Illinois.”
Niemann had a concussion. He was taken to the locker room and didn’t play any more that day. The game continued, of course, and it was Partytown in that same room a couple hours later. Niemann joined in the celebration.
“Once I got hit I kind of blacked out for a little bit,” Niemann said this week. “After that, once I got to the locker room I was fine. I remember everything before the hit. There was just kind of a five-minute window there where it was hazy.
“I went through the concussion protocol. I felt like myself the next day. Once I was cleared, I was good to go. I felt normal, honestly, after the game.”
Which produced a collective “Whew!” in Iowa’s camp. Niemann had a terrific season last year. He started and went the distance against Michigan State the following Saturday in the Big Ten championship.
That concussion didn’t give Niemann anywhere near the aggravation as the high ankle sprain he suffered a few weeks later during a December practice in Iowa City before the team left for California.
“I tried to rehab from it,” he said. “Obviously, it was the Rose Bowl and I was going to try to go on it.”
He reinjured the ankle on Stanford’s second drive of the game, and his day and season were done. “Frustrating again,” Niemann said, “but nothing you can really do about it.”
So Niemann had offseason surgery … on a shoulder. “From an injury early in the season that I just played through,” he said.
But he’s been as good as ever on the field so far this season. How?
“I think you have to be tough,” Niemann said.
Toughness. The word tumbles from the mouths of player after player.
“Definitely mental toughness,” is how Hawkeye defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson described how Niemann has bounced back from his physical setbacks.
“He’s a tough guy,” Jewell said. “He’s just an amazing player so far.”
The hardest thing for a player isn’t an injury or surgery. It’s the rehabilitation.
“The worst thing for any player is to be injured because you just don’t feel like you’re part of it,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You feel like you’re on the outside looking in. I don’t care if it’s a minor ankle sprain, you miss two days. It’s how you feel.”
Not all players return to their previous form. Sometimes, the body doesn’t fully respond. Sometimes, the mind doesn’t.
“I just tried to take the approach to get a day better every day,” Niemann said.
But missing practice time can be stressful, and stress never has helped a healing process.
“That’s something I tried to stay away from,” Niemann said, “because if you take that mental approach it kind of sets you back.”
Someone will probably get injured on the Kinnick Stadium field Saturday. It’s a certainty the players will feel effects from the violent sport they love so much.
“Sunday morning, waking up, you get that sore feeling through your body,” Johnson said. “That’s why we come in and recover the way we do and start the week off brand new for our next opponent."
If they’re lucky, that is. Johnson said he’s never had a concussion.
“I hope I don’t get that,” he said.
Let’s hope no one does this weekend, at Kinnick or on any football field. But someone will.