The tunnel was a womb, so heavy was the yearn of a team to be reborn nine months after its previous game. The scene at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium before the Texas Longhorns took the field against Rice for the season opener Sept. 3 was almost psychedelic in anticipation. As 5-7 became 0-0, players pounded each other’s shoulder pads as if they were flushing out demons as well as creating a raw rhythm of camaraderie.
But no player was looking forward to the new beginning more than Blaine Irby, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury three years earlier in a game against those same Rice Owls.
Nine months is a long time in the life of a college football player (and fans), but three years is forever when you have no feeling in your right foot for 15 months of that time.
Three years of not knowing, but working hard anyway.
It was Irby’s turn in 2008, when tight end Jermichael Finley left school early and took his talents to Green Bay. As a freshman out of St. Bonaventure High in Camarillo, Calif., Irby showed great promise as Finley’s backup. A little undersized at 220 lbs, but he made up for that with speed, good hands and an intensity fueled by a pure love of football. “Once the ball snaps, he turns into a beast,” tight ends coach Bruce Chambers said of Irby, who was poised to be the latest in the line of great UT blocker/ receivers that went from Pat Fitzgerald to Derek Lewis to Bo Scaife and David Thomas to Finley.
Irby scored touchdowns in each of the first two games of the 2008 season and had 10 catches in 10 quarters. No. 19 could play!
But in the third game there were two blowouts. Texas beat Rice 52-10, as Colt McCoy passed for 4 touchdowns. And Irby’s right knee blew up like an umbrella in a wind storm when a Rice safety drove his shoulder into Irby’s right shin on a crossing pattern. The clip of that play soon made it to several of Youtube’s “worst sports injuries” compilations. It made Joe Theismann wince.
As bad as it looked on the field, it was worse in x-rays. There was multi-ligament damage that involved his ACL, LCL, meniscus cartilage, articular cartilage and muscle tendons. Most significantly, however, was a peroneal nerve injury that Longhorn head trainer Kenny Boyd called “limb threatening” if the leg lost circulation.
A void at tight end
Even after three surgeries, doctors rated Irby a 20-1 shot to run again, much less pad up.
He hit the weight room every day and became a player coach who couldn’t play, mentoring younger tight ends like D.J. Grant and Trey Graham who also suffered devastating injuries. But after Irby went down, the TE position went lowercase, as UT went primarily to a spread offense. In the 10 games after Rice, Irby’s replacements Peter Ullman and Greg Smith combined for 5 catches and 22 yards.
While McCoy and his go-to guys Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby were upsetting No. 1 Oklahoma 45-35 in Dallas on Oct. 11, 2008, Irby was preparing for his first ligament reconstruction operation by team Dr. Carey Windler.
In April of 2009, Irby had the first of two decompression surgeries performed by Houston neurosurgeon Dr. Rahul Nath, who had performed the same operation six years earlier on Tony Hills, a tight end turned tackle for Texas. During the state semifinals during his senior year at Houston Elsik High, Hills was cut low by a Converse Judson DB and suffered an injury identical to Irby’s
But where Hills’ peroneal nerve started regenerating six weeks after decompression surgery, which removes scar tissue around the nerve, Irby continued to suffer from “drop foot” for another eight months.
”I talked to Tony a bunch of times,” said Irby, who also became close to David Thomas during the ordeal. “And every time he just told me to be patient.”
Then, one day at a tight ends meeting in December 2009 to prepare for the National Championship game against Alabama, Irby felt a twitch in the limp foot. It moved about half an inch, which is all this dream warrior needed to see himself suited up in burnt orange again.
“I remember when his nerve finally fired up,” said Irby’s high school position coach Tom Therrien, who got the news from Irby’s father Pat. The St. Bonaventure team had been praying that this day would come for the former all-state linebacker and tight end nicknamed Boogie. “We were all ecstatic for Boog. He’s a special guy.”
But Boyd wasn’t so quick to join the jubilation, knowing there was a long road ahead “to go from feeling that twitch to being able to block a defensive end or run a route, catch and run past a linebacker,” Boyd said at an Aug. 24 press conference that detailed the stages of Irby’s recovery. “There are a lot of steps in between there.”
The initial focus was to help Irby walk without a splint. “But as this thing continued we realized there was a lot greater potential,” Boyd said.
Making peace with 27 Naked Ohio
Doctors, trainers, coaches. That’s the chain of custody for a player as seriously injured as Irby.
By the summer of 2010, Irby felt he was 100% healthy and trainers agreed, clearing him to play. But Coach Mack Brown, who has had five knee surgeries himself, tried to talk Irby
out of coming back. Just as he had advised Scaife and Jordan Shipley to quit football in earlier seasons, Brown told Irby that it was more important to play with his kids in the back yard some day then to play football.
“Knowing what I know, with my knee, and I told Bo Scaife that, and I told Jordan Shipley that, and they’re both in the NFL,” Brown said.
Coach Brown denied Irby’s return to the team in 2010 but, realizing the kid wasn’t going to quit playing football, offered him some daylight. “I said, ‘Why don’t you run as hard as you can, and push it as hard as you can and do everything you need to do in the fall to make sure you think (your knee is) strong enough, and then come and see me in the spring.”
Spring came and there was Irby, relishing his favorite role: teammate. “It’s hard to explain that feeling you get playing football with your buddies,” Irby said Aug. 24. “I missed the game of football, and it’s one of those deals where I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t 100 percent ready.”
On the second day of practice, Chambers sent Irby into the huddle. “27 Naked Ohio” was the call and Chambers looked at Irby’s face, which had no reaction.
The play, the one that almost ended Irby’s career, calls for him to joust the defensive end, then sprint across the field, looking back for the ball.
“I knew that physically he was cleared,” Chambers said of the player who came back weighing 240, with 20 more pounds of muscle. “I wanted to make sure that mentally there was not a block or flashback.”
Irby ran the play, caught the ball and cut upfield. On the way back to the huddle, he passed Chambers and said “Thanks, Coach.”
He was ready.
“I’ve never seen it where a guy is not supposed to walk again to where he is actually out there catching some pretty good balls right now,” said new strength coach Bennie Wylie, who has only known a healthy Irby.”
With more upper body strength, he’s also getting better as a blocker, a necessity in his role as starting H-back (a hybrid of tight end and fullback.) “One of the things I tried to do early is put him up against (Junior DE Alex) Okafor, “ said Chambers. “I felt like if he can block Okafor then there aren’t many people he can’t block, and he’s done a good job there.”
But to the players who watched what Irby was going through with his painfully slow rehabilitation, it was his mental strength and determination that was most impressive.
“We talk all the time about going “all in” and I think that is the definition of him,” said safety Blake Gideon, perhaps Irby’s best friend on the team. “There (was) really no guarantee of any success or goals being reached, and (Irby was) still giving everything he had to it.”
Calling Irby’s comeback an inspiration to the entire team and staff, Coach Brown said “It’s one of the more emotional stories, from a positive standpoint, I’ve ever been around.”
An ode to Tillman
His father was a college football player, and his two older brothers, Brian and Brad, excelled on the gridiron during high school in Tempe, AZ. But there was something special when “Boogie,” the name his brothers gave him at age 3, took the field.
“Blaine was big for his age, and he could run,” said Pat Irby, a sales executive for La-Z Boy. Mother Michelle Irby works as a flight attendant.
The family had season tickets to Arizona State football games at Sun Devils Stadium, where Irby saw the model for the football player he wanted to be in Pat Tillman. An undersized, yet fearless linebacker, Tillman’s game time motor didn’t have an off switch.
When Irby was 8, the 1996 Sun Devils, led offensively by quarterback Jake Plummer, went through the regular season undefeated and ranked #2 in the country before losing a heart-breaking Rose Bowl game to Ohio State, 20-17, in the final seconds.
One of Irby’s freshman year highlights was catching a pass against the Sun Devils in the 2007 Holiday Bowl, which Texas won 52-34.
But it was hard to look at the Arizona State uniforms and not get choked up about Tillman, who also played his pro ball in Arizona with the Cardinals. In the wake of 9/11, Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract to join the Army Rangers and flush out terrorists. He was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan in April 2004.
Besides his unselfishness on and off the field, Tillman was known as a player with long hair protruding from his helmet. It’s a look that Irby has adopted in homage to his hero. Irby last cut his hair in April 2010.
“That was when Kenny (Boyd) and I were doing some workouts on the track, and he brought up the possibility of getting ready to play football again,” said Irby. “So it’s got a pretty deep meaning to it. I’m kind of growing it out for Pat Tillman. God has given me a second chance to play football, so I’m going to try and play like he did, with the amount of passion that he played with.”
Injuries are just a part of football and Irby’s had his share before the big one. In 8th grade he tore his ACL, which caused him to sit out freshman year. Irby played wide receiver his sophomore year at Corona del Sol High in Tempe, but was more highly regarded as a defensive back. A weight room wolverine, Irby bulked up to play linebacker the next year.
But after his father’s job was transferred to Southern Cal., it turned out that Irby finished his high school career at St. Bonaventure, where he won all-state linebacker and all-region tight end honors.
Oregon recruited him as a linebacker, Michigan gave him a choice to play offense or defense, as did his beloved Arizona State.
But Blaine’s oldest brother Brian advised him to check out Texas before he committed. “Brian had a good friend in Austin and he used to visit a lot and fell in love with the town,” said Pat Irby. “So we contacted (then-assistant recruiting coordinator) Bobby Kennedy and sent him a tape.”
Coach Chambers watched Irby’s sizzle reel and wanted him to play tight end for Texas. On the plane ride home after the visit, Blaine looked at his parents and said, “Did you get the feeling that I got?”
His parents smiled.
“It’s a special place, with special people” Pat Irby said of the UT football program. “You look at what the trainers and the staff have done for our son. They never gave up on him. It’s never been about getting him back on the field, but doing what’s best for Blaine.”
If football happens, it happens.
So here was Irby on Sept. 3, looking like the drummer of Nirvana in a football helmet, ready to take the field as a team co-captain. He’d gone from a tingle to chills.
“I saw my family in the stands, getting teary-eyed and it was a real emotional time for me.”
On the first Texas play from scrimmage, Irby went into motion and settled at the H-back position, behind left tackle Tray Allen, another senior whose career has been marred by injury. The call was a hand-off to Fozzy Whittaker to Irby’s side and at the snap #19 sealed the DE with a pop, then peeled off to hit the middle linebacker.
Irby didn’t show up in the stats that first game- the one pass thrown his way went through his hands- but his appearance was significant nonetheless. “Brick By Brick” is the motto Coach Brown gave to this season of rebuilding and no one embodies that mindset better than the kid from Arizona who had to learn how to walk again.
Blaine Irby knows his reconstructed right knee could blow up again and yet, like Tillman, he’s not going to hold back and play it safe. By example, he’s given his teammates, his brothers, another important creed. Play every down like it’s your last.
– Michael Corcoran, Horns Illustrated, October 2011
WEB EXTRA: MEET THE BLAINGELS
Kenny Boyd. A graduate of University of Florida, Boyd is in his seventh season as head athletic trainer for football at UT. The Fort Walton Beach, Fla. native was a four-year
letterman in wrestling in high school. He and his wife, Ellen, have a son Taylor. “I probably had more fun in the training room with Kenny and the staff than I had in a while,” said Irby, who made the best of the situation. ” You just have to take it each day as it comes and enjoy every moment of it.”
Jesse Ackerman. UT’s assistant strength and conditioning coach Ackerman, who previously worked at Iowa State, did most of the one-on-one work with Irby during the two and a half years of rehab. Ackerman’s background in clinical psychology helped when Irby got in a funk over the lack of feeling in his foot. “I think, when an athlete has an injury like this, initially they look at it as a hiatus from their career or they terminate. It’s actually a grieving process,” Ackerman said. “I don’t think Blaine ever looked at it as a termination.. .When he was feeling down we went back to work, and we went back to work harder.”
Bennie Wylie. Mexia native Wylie was named UT’s strength and conditioning head coach for football in January 2011, when Irby’s rehab was nearing completion. A former strength coach for Tennessee (2010) and Texas Tech (2003- 2009), Wylie and wife Jennifer are parents to five-year-old twin boys Braden and Caden. “I got to come in on the easy part of it, the shine part of it, and just kind of help him get over that mental hump.,” said Wylie, who was instantly impressed by “how upbeat and what a team guy he was, because if most people have that same injury they’re not as team-oriented…”
Dr. Rahul Nath. Houston-based neurosurgeon Dr. Nath was well-known to Texas doctors and trainers after he performed successful surgeries on Tony Hills, who suffered a knee injury almost identical to Irby’s. Dr. Nath, 54, grew up in Canada, but moved to the U.S. to go to Northwestern University Medical School, where he graduated in 1988. He’s been the director of Houston’s Texas Nerve & Paralysis Institute since 2004.