Trevor Mbakwe will participate in his second Senior Day on Saturday, which seems appropriate since his college basketball career has lasted twice as long as many of his peers'.
His final game at Williams Arena will feel different than his previous final game at the old Barn, though. For starters, he'll actually wear a basketball uniform, unlike last season when he sported dress clothes as an injured player. And barring some miraculous ruling by the NCAA that grants him an unprecedented seventh season, he knows he won't experience a third Senior Day.
Two is enough, and he expects this one to be more emotional because he wasn't guaranteed this moment.
"This will be harder," he said, "because I'm actually playing and having gone through all the things that I went through in college."
Mbakwe's career serves as a testament to perseverance and his ability to overcome self-inflicted mistakes. His career demonstrates the importance of second chances and even third chances, and that sports often becomes an ideal laboratory for redemption and rehabilitation.
Thankfully, Mbakwe was given an opportunity to make things right.
"I'm just grateful to be able to play basketball," he said.
Grateful to the NCAA for granting him a sixth season after he tore up his right knee. Grateful to a Miami judge who delivered a ruling that allowed him to return to basketball after Mbakwe violated his probation with a summer drunken driving arrest. And grateful to Tubby Smith for giving him one final chance.
At the time, an angry Smith said he came close to dismissing Mbakwe from the program, which ultimately is irrelevant because it's either a yes or no in those decisions. But Smith made the right call.
Mbakwe describes his career as a "roller coaster." The twists and turns and hills and valleys can be found in a simple Google search, but he insists he's wiser because of those life experiences. And his tone reflects a genuine remorse over choices he made.
"Obviously I've made some mistakes," he said. "It's a huge mistake any time you get into a car [after drinking]. People die from that. Something worse could have happened that day. I felt awful for doing that to the team, especially when we entered the season on a high note. I felt awful for everybody who was happy for me to come back. I didn't want them to think, 'Oh, he's going to be a trouble-maker.' Especially with this being my hometown. I wanted to represent my hometown the best that I could."
His final season on the court hasn't been perfect or unfolded as he envisioned, but Mbakwe treated Gophers fans to a performance this week that reminded everyone what can happen when he flexes those massive muscles. Mbakwe played harder and tougher than he has in a long time and powered his way to 21 points and 12 rebounds in an upset of No. 1 Indiana. He finally looked like himself again -- the Trevor Mbakwe pre-ACL surgery.
The victory allowed the Gophers to breathe again and essentially guaranteed them a spot in the NCAA tournament. That would give Mbakwe tournament appearances in his first college season (at Marquette) and his sixth, which must be a record in terms of interval. It also takes him off the hook from having to repay his scholarship for this season, which he vowed to do if the Gophers missed the tournament, a scenario that seemed plausible during their recent slide.
"I heard a lot of comments about that," he said. "People said, 'Oh, you better get your wallet ready.'"
Mbakwe's age (24) also has become an easy punch line. He graduated from high school the same year as Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin. Mbakwe once joked on Twitter that "gas was 89 cents my freshman year" and noted he's so old that professors think he's a faculty member. He asked ESPN's Dick Vitale to refer to him as a "Diaper Dandy" during a telecast this season.
"The old guys need some love, too," Mbakwe said.
He'll become a young guy again next season. Though undersized for an NBA power forward at 6-8, Mbakwe can rebound at that level and, as a likely second-round pick, he would give a team energy off the bench.
His pro prospects appeared bleak when his arrest became public last fall. He wasn't guaranteed anything, even his freedom. But Mbakwe received one more chance to pull his life together, and he's grateful for that. This week he got to celebrate a milestone victory and another Senior Day, two events he promised to "remember forever."
"I definitely didn't plan on being in college for six years," he said. "But everything happens for a reason."