IOWA CITY — You can’t play football less than six months after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament.
You can’t intercept a pass, return it 89 yards for a touchdown, and give your team the spark to turn a white-knuckler of a game against Illinois into a rosy 45-16 romp less than six months after tearing an ACL.
Except “can’t” isn’t part of Iowa junior safety Brandon Snyder, who had that serious knee injury last April during the Iowa football team’s spring practice season. Write off Snyder for this year, most of us assumed. You don’t come back from a torn ACL in the spring to help your team in the autumn.
But those who knew Snyder best had a different opinion.
“I called it last April that he’ll be back,” said his father, Tim Snyder. “I would have been more surprised if he hadn’t (returned) this year more than that he did. That’s just him.”
The Snyders are from Larchwood, a burg tucked in Iowa’s northwest corner. It’s as far from Kinnick Stadium as you can be and still be inside the state’s borders.
Which is fitting. Because Snyder originally was a walk-on from a Class A (smallest Iowa high schools that play 11-man football) program. That’s a mighty long way from becoming a key player on an Iowa Hawkeyes defense.
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But here we were, 5 1/2 months after Snyder’s injury in Week 6 of the Hawkeyes’ season, with Iowa needing a shot of savvy and leadership in its secondary. And here was Snyder, in Saturday’s starting lineup at Kinnick.
“Just to see him on the field was enough,” his father said. “To do what he did, it’s pretty special.”
What he did was turn the game Iowa’s way. With the Hawkeyes up 17-13 midway through the third quarter but stalled on offense since halftime, Illinois had a first down at the Iowa 22. Snyder then picked off a Jeff George Jr., pass at the 11.
With lots of blocking help from his fellow defenders, Snyder sailed down the right sideline for an 89-yard touchdown return. It was a moment every Hawkeye player had to appreciate, because it was made by someone they knew had gone to the physical and emotional black hole of injury and emerged by running to daylight with a pick-6.
That kind of impact play, Snyder said, was something he thought about while rehabbing.
“Every day,” he said. “That’s what drove me to get back on the field. Every day, just picturing a moment like that in Kinnick. Because I never really had a moment like that.
“That’s what you envision. Making that play doesn’t happen if you don’t envision it, seeing it a thousand times, trusting your preparation, trusting your eyes.”
Snyder said his faith in God has sustained him through these last several months, and throughout his life. He also believes in himself.
“Brandon is just extremely, intrinsically motivated,” said his roommate of four years, Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse.
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“It was something truly amazing, the way he handled the injury in spring ball, the way he handled the surgery, the rehab, the way he attacked it. Frankly, a lot of people with serious injuries like that kind of just get down like ‘What if this is the end of the road?’ ”
But this is a man who turned down an athletic scholarship at North Dakota State to walk on at Iowa. He had faith he belonged here.
“His goal was to get a scholarship after one year,” Tim Snyder said. “It took two. He felt bad after the first year and apologized to us. He felt he let us down. But we knew it was just a matter of when.”
Snyder broke into the starting lineup at last season’s start, and stayed there. He took lumps. But he had become a good Big Ten player by late in the season. Saturday, he again was bouncing around, directing defensive traffic, busting up passes.
Oh, and he got his fourth career interception and first for a touchdown.
“I was a little tired (on the return), that’s for sure,” Snyder said. “But I was just kind of reflecting, too.”
Putting things in perspective, he said, came on the last 20 yards of his return.
“Probably shouldn’t have been,” he said. “Probably should have been running faster.”
No, Snyder did the right thing. Hard-earned moments like that should be savored as long as possible. Forever, really.