As he lay on the field after a violent collision, Brandon Owens initially thought he wasn't hurt too badly. He couldn't move his right arm, and his legs were a little tingly. Just a bad stinger, he thought.
"After about 10 minutes I still couldn't move my arm," Owens said. "I knew something was wrong."
That collision with Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson on Oct. 1, 2005, dramatically changed Owens' life. An emerging star at strong safety for the Gophers, Owens suffered nerve damage in his neck, ending his career. Owens has endured two major surgeries, including one this June, and still cannot use his right arm for daily functions.
Owens said the ordeal left him depressed for months, and he declined numerous interview requests after his injury. But after visiting Gophers practice on Monday, Owens talked publicly for the first time with the Star Tribune about the hit, his injury and what life is like now. His smile said more than any of his words.
"I'm past the depression stage," he said. "I'm alive and happy. Tell everybody I'm doing great."
Right place, wrong time
Owens has seen replays of the hit several times and still remembers the sequence well.
"I wasn't even supposed to be there," he said with a brief smile. "I was supposed to be in Cover 2, deep down the field."
However, the game plan changed when Robinson got flushed from the pocket and began running down the right sideline in front of the Gophers bench at Penn State's Beaver Stadium. Both Robinson and Owens lowered their heads just before the collision, and the impact jarred Owens' head in an awkward and scary motion. He immediately fell backwards, his body twisting.
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason, concerned when he saw the hit, looked at ABC Sports sideline analyst Lynn Swann, who was standing near the play.
"I can still remember the look that he gave me, like this kid is really hurt," Mason said.
Owens suffered a brachial plexus injury in which several nerve roots were torn out of his spinal cord, according to Gophers head athletic trainer Ed Lochrie. These injuries often occur in high-velocity car or motorcycle accidents or in collision sports such as football.
Owens underwent an eight-hour surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester in January 2006. The goal was to help Owens, through surgery and rehabilitation, regain as much function in his arm as possible. He had surgery on his wrist two months ago in which muscles from his forearm were transferred to the other side of his forearm.
Owens still wears a brace on his wrist, but he no longer has to keep his entire arm in a sling, which he did until three months ago. It will be three years from the time of his first surgery before Owens knows how much function he will regain, but it won't be 100 percent.
"The way I look at it, it could have been worse," he said.
'Football field was his home'
It took time for Owens to reach this point emotionally. He was forced to deal with the fact that his football career was over while also coping with a debilitating injury.
Owens, a junior at the time, was emerging as a star player. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, he was a fast, athletic safety who loved to hit. He was a difference-maker, and his passion for the game showed in the way he played.
"The football field was his home," said Jason Turner, Owens' godfather.
Owens was considered an NFL prospect because of his size, talent and athleticism. That was his dream.
"It's hard not being in the game," he said. "I've been playing football since I was 6 years old. I still love football. I'll never stop loving it."
Robinson, now a running back with the San Francisco 49ers, tried to reach Owens at the hospital after the game, but the two have yet to talk. Robinson asked Penn State officials not to show replays of the hit on either the scoreboard or the school's website. Owens said he would welcome the chance to talk to Robinson.
"I don't have any hard feelings or anything like that," Owens said. "It's part of the game. It was just a freak accident."
Rebuilding his life
People close to Owens worried about him after football was taken away. A quiet person by nature, Owens doesn't often show his emotions. At the time of his injury he also was dealing with the death of his grandmother, Mary Owens, who died in July 2005. Owens, who lived with his grandmother, mother and two sisters growing up, wears a picture of Mary in a locket.
"That wasn't the best year for me," he said.
His daily life changed after the injury. Simple tasks became difficult as he had to learn to do everything with his left hand. He dropped out of school for two semesters because he couldn't write or type and the pain medicine made it difficult to focus.
Some worried that Owens might quit school altogether and return to his home in Florida to be closer to his family, but he said he never considered that option.
"We told him to stay there and get his education," Turner said.
Owens, who remains on scholarship, returned to school and since has learned to type with only his left hand.
"I've got big hands," he said, smiling. "I can do it easily."
Owens hopes to earn his degree in communication studies in either December or next spring. He also is interested in coaching.
For now, Owens said he will continue to do rehab twice a day to increase the range of motion and strength in his arm. He hopes to be able to do "normal things" some day.
"I want to catch a ball or hold a kid," he said.
He still remains close to the team and regularly visits practice. His friends on the team say he's in better spirits these days.
"He's doing the best you can hope for," said senior fullback Justin Valentine, who lives with Owens. "Being around us helps. It's just unfortunate. It could have been any of us."
Owens said he never wonders why the injury happened to him. No time for that. He said he refuses to let his injury break his spirit.
"I'm a very strong-minded person," he said. "I've got a strong heart. I'm going to live a happy life."