By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was nice in the midst of all the devastation and destruction of the recent past — we’re talking about both Hurricane Sandy and the two-game losing streak that has virtually destroyed what had been a West Virginia University football season dripping with hope and great expectations — to find a nice story to report.
To be honest, things had turned so sour that it became almost a priority to find something uplifting.
Wandering through football player interviews on Tuesday evening, we stumbled upon Jeff Braun, the massive Mountaineer guard who really has had a rough time of it in the past two games.
After not having missed a play through the first five and a half games, Braun missed his first play when his helmet was ripped from his head in the Texas Tech game, a rather minor setback compared to the ankle sprain he would suffer from not much later in the game that sent him to the sidelines.
Then, in the Kansas State game, while the humiliation of a 55-14 defeat was being heaped upon the Mountaineers and while quarterback Geno Smith was running for his own life on far too many occasions that included four sacks, Braun found himself victimized once again.
In mid-game he was caught up in one of those scrums that football linemen get themselves into as they perform their hand-to-hand combat.
At this point we will turn the tale over to Mr. Braun to explain what did happen.
“I took a whole body to the side of my knee. Josh (Jenkins, the other guard) finished a guy that Joey (center Madsen) was holding up and Joey threw him into me,” he said.
The result was that his knee took the force of a near 300-pound defender being thrust into in from the side.
Braun knew right away that he had been injured, but as he looks back on it, he was not about to point a finger at his teammates for their part in this injury.
“It’s not their fault; it’s just part of the game,” he said. “They were just being physical with the guy and doing a great job of it. I was just in the way.”
That did not ease any of the pain at the moment or make him look any healthier as he lay on the Milan Puskar Stadium turf, trainers checking out the injury.
He needed help to his feet and to the sideline, and there certainly was a worry about the extent of the injury.
By now you may be wondering just what could be uplifting about this tale.
Again, we turn it over to Mr. Braun.
“I got lucky,” he said. “My knee brace saved me. The knee brace saved my knee. I just came out with minor bumps and bruises.”
Once upon a time, football players didn’t wear knee braces.
Wasn’t macho. Wasn’t comfortable.
And once upon a time there were a lot of knee surgeries, far more than are done today.
Knee braces have been a savior in the sport.
“It’s mandatory for everyone in the line to wear them. It’s been that way since I’ve been here,” Braun said, adding. “I wouldn’t play without them anymore.”
He didn’t always feel this
way. Too many high school players aren’t equipped with this important bit of safety equipment and aren’t used to them when they are issued and told that they are as much a part of the equipment as the helmet and shoulder pads.
“When you first get here and never wore them before, you don’t like them,” Braun admitted. “They’re clunky; they’re heavy. You don’t like them. You’re not used to them, but after a month or two of wearing, they become part of you.”
And there are a lot of times when they do their thing for a football player.
“This was not the first time the brace helped me,” Braun admitted. “It is the most significant time.”
He knows how close he was to having his college career possibly end right there and then.
“It was very painful. I didn’t know what was going on. After I was able to put weight on it and walk off the field, I knew it wasn’t going to be too, too bad, but I didn’t know the extent of it,” he said.
It wasn’t until after the game that he learned it was a sprain and bad bruise, but nothing in the inner knee had been damaged.
This goes on every day in practices and games across America and not just to interior linemen. Running backs have always been vulnerable — think of how the great Gale Sayers’ NFL career was cut short by knee surgeries — and so are quarterbacks.
In fact, in the NFL, Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is making all three of his quarterbacks wear knee braces on the front knee during practice and in games.
“It is something we require,’’ Schiano said. “That’s the spot where I think quarterbacks are the most vulnerable. That front leg, since all our quarterbacks are righties, their left leg is braced. Because when you’re throwing the ball and then you follow through and that leg is standing there, people roll into you. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it gives you a little better chance.”
It’s a lesson Alabama coach Nick Saban learned with his quarterback A.J. McCarron, who injured his knee earlier this month against Missouri.
“Any time you think something’s gone wrong, you’re nervous for a minute,” McCarron said of going down in the third quarter against Missouri. He had to be helped to the sideline and spent several minutes at the trainer’s table before receiving a knee brace and reentering the game. “I trust my trainers, team doctors, to make the right call.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.