Brendan Beal loves playing college football. Unfortunately, his knees don't.
Those two truths have continually collided, and because of that we will probably never realize Beal's true potential as a linebacker. And that leaves him frustrated and almost at a loss for words.
"The football gods just really haven't been on my side with injuries," he said.
The Gophers junior linebacker faces yet another lengthy rehabilitation after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a loss to Nebraska in November. He has already torn the ACL in his left knee twice. He also missed one season because of a neck injury.
But he refuses to hang up his cleats for good. He is determined to return for his senior season, even if some question his sanity in attempting another comeback. He doesn't want to go out this way. However unrealistic it sounds, Beal wants to prove to himself and everyone else that he can still become the player who was wooed by some of college football's elite programs.
"There's that burning desire in me to show the world what I can do," he said. "I know the player I was. I just haven't had that chance to go shine."
This isn't the script Beal envisioned for himself. A five-star recruit from Pennsylvania, he was rated among the top linebackers nationally as a senior and held scholarship offers from Florida, Southern California, Louisiana State, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
He signed with Florida in 2008 and joined Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin in college football's glamour program at the time. Beal enrolled early and expected to play as a true freshman. He had high hopes.
"I wanted to be the Tim Tebow of that defense," he said.
But he ripped up his left knee a week before the season opener. He rehabbed and felt healthy as his second season approached. But a blindside hit in training camp left him with a herniated disk and another missed season.
Beal transferred to Minnesota in 2010 and sat out that season, per NCAA rules. He finally thought he would see his first college action in 2011, but a teammate crashed into his left knee in practice two days before the opener against USC. In addition to tearing his ACL, Beal suffered other damage to the knee. The injury was so severe that Beal visited renowned New York surgeon Dr. David Altchek.
"A lot of people didn't think I would get back from that one," Beal said.
He defied those odds and, by all accounts, looked impressive in fall camp before this season. But he played limited snaps in a backup role, collecting only 16 tackles. His season ended prematurely when he heard a pop in his right knee while grappling with a Nebraska lineman.
Beal and Gophers coach Jerry Kill shared a quiet moment in an empty locker room that day. Kill put his arm around Beal and tried to console him. He joked that he wishes he could give Beal his own knees.
"We talked about life and kind of laughed a bit," Beal said.
Beal has maintained a positive outlook and even his sense of humor. He walked into the Gophers team room last week on crutches and smiled.
"Third time's a charm, right?" he said.
If only it were that simple. Beal's determination and courage are admirable, but you wonder if someone will try to convince him that his long-term health is not worth the risk of another comeback. Advancements in ACL surgery and rehab make multiple comebacks possible, but hopefully Beal doesn't jeopardize his ability to enjoy a functional life by going down this path again. He said he won't put himself in a bad position if his knee doesn't respond properly.
"I don't know what's going to happen with this rehab," he said. "But I'm going to work my butt off to get back. It's so frustrating because of everything I've been through. There are days I just sit there and I break down. I just love the game."
The game hasn't always loved him in return, but it has provided him other opportunities. Beal graduated last spring with a degree in business marketing. He earned academic All-Big Ten honors with a 3.75 overall grade-point average.
Beal is pursuing his masters in financial mathematics and spends his days studying quantitative finances and writing mathematical algorithms. He hopes to land a job as a hedge fund manager or portfolio manager.
But first he wants to give football one more shot, even though his knees have had enough.
"At times I just sit there and I'm like, 'Is God telling me something?' " Beal said. "But I'm a fighter. I know my ability and I know I still have it. I just need a break."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org