116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa senior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin is there when you need him.
In high school, that meant joining some of his football teammates to fill the roster on Oswego East’s volleyball team when not enough boys tried out.
“I mostly shot front court just because I was able to get over the net and actually hit the balls,” Kelly-Martin said. “It's probably one of the most fun sports I've played out there. Except we played some nasty teams with crazy serves and then it wasn't fun, but practice was everything I love.”
On the Iowa football roster, it’s being the trusted backup running back behind junior Tyler Goodson, the player who can block or make those final punches to convert on third down or slam into the end zone. During his sophomore season behind Mekhi Sargent, Kelly-Martin did just that, rushing for 341 yards on 97 attempts, adding 78 yards receiving and three touchdowns. As a freshman, he had four touchdowns.
Despite Goodson assuming the starting position, the role of a No. 2 running back still is a coveted position and, with the departure of Sargent, it’s Kelly-Martin’s for the taking.
“We look at him as a starter,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Much like we did with Mekhi last year, he’s a starter. Having him and Tyler out there gives you two guys who are really experienced. That’s one position we aren’t worried about.”
But Kelly-Martin couldn’t be that person for Iowa’s final game last year after an ACL tear. He finished the season with 15 carries for 54 yards through seven games. In the spring, he helped from the sidelines — watching film and working with younger players as what Iowa running backs coach Ladell Betts called the “elder statesman” of the group. He also joined Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Dane Belton as a member of the team’s diversity, equity and inclusion board.
Without time on the field, though, Kelly-Martin’s leadership by example took a new meaning. He had to see rehabbing his knee as a way of contributing to the team down the line.
“Not being involved in team activities, it kind of hurts your pride a little bit,” Kelly-Martin said.
The other piece is the ACL tear is not just physically demanding, but comes with its own mental hurdles. A 2016 study by the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, which studied 27 patients who were 6 to 24 months post-ACL surgery, found locus of control, or extent of which someone believes they have control over events in their lives and self-esteem level, have a significant impact on an athlete’s functional performance.
Iowa football team physician Dr. Andy Peterson said proprioceptive control, the ability to tell where your joint is in space, has more of an impact on athletes’ rehabilitation process.
The reason coming back from ACL tears has improved over the years is because of more time in rehabilitation to get that control back, but athletes don’t often take enough time with rehabbing other parts of the body.
“It’s (proprioceptive control) one of the last things that comes back after injuries and one of the more common causes of reinjury, especially in the ankle joint,” Peterson said.
Betts has experience of his own, tearing his ACL in 2009 while with Washington in the NFL before playing his final year with the New Orleans Saints.
“It’s more mental than anything,” Betts said. “The recovery process can be really tricky because sometimes when it gets sore it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. The biggest thing is the mental aspect of trusting that it’s fine, like I’m gonna get tackled and everything is going to be fine. I think he’s (Kelly-Martin) past that.”
Kelly-Martin showed no hesitation during the open scrimmage at Kids Day two weeks ago. As a key receiving target for starting quarterback Spencer Petras, he caught one pass on a curl route and rolled into the pylon for a touchdown. He was back to his true form.
“We’ve done a lot of activities to build that confidence up,” Kelly-Martin said. “The physical challenge is when you get out on the field, actually put your foot in the ground and try to make a cut or even something similar to what happened to mess it up, and once you get over that hump, it's just playing football.”
Iowa has depth at the running-back position, and Betts said he expects four to five of them to see playing time this fall, including younger players like redshirt freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams (no relation) and true freshman Deavin Hilson.
Gavin and Leshon both showed promise for the future at the position with shining moments in the spring and fall open practices.
But the indisputable No. 1 is Goodson, who was recently named to the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists. As the team’s top rusher, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year en route to 762 yards on the ground and added 15 catches for 152 yards receiving.
But Goodson’s known for not taking a break when he might need it, and when he does, a healthy Kelly-Martin will be there to carry the weight.
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