COLUMBIA — A lot has changed for Andrew Gachkar.
When he came to preseason practice last season as a sophomore, the Missouri linebacker was coming off blood clot surgery that forced him to miss spring practice. He watched other players bench-press hundreds of pounds more than he could.
“I probably was stronger and faster in high school than I was when I came out here,” Gachkar said.
Now a junior, Gachkar has regained most of his conditioning and is working with the first team at outside linebacker. He said he couldn’t remember exactly how much he bench-presses, but estimates it’s about 350 pounds, more than 200 pounds ahead of where he was a year ago.
“I’m not as big as Spoon (teammate Sean Weatherspoon) but I can do more weight than I used to be able to do,” he said.
When Gachkar was first diagnosed with the blood clot in January 2008, he was told he needed surgery in order to avoid being placed on blood thinners, which would end his football career. Even with surgery, there was a possibility that he would never play football again.
“It definitely crossed my mind,” he said. “A major surgery like that is something that you and your family have to take into consideration because there’s maybe a certain little percent in the world that have catastrophic surgeries like that.”
Gachkar had the surgery, which included having a rib removed. Soon after, he spoke to his parents about the possibility of playing football again. They agreed he could play if doctors cleared him, which they did.
When he returned, Gachkar was not just behind in the weight room. He was also behind on the field.
“My max effort was at like two plays when I first got back,” he said. “Gradually, you could do like seven in a row, you could do like eight, nine in a row. You have to build that play number up.”
Gachkar was eligible to redshirt last season, but it was decided he could be used on special teams much the same way he was used his freshman year. He played in all 14 of the team’s games, logging 28 tackles.
“That’s never the plan to do the same thing like that twice,” he said. “I was just thankful I could play football again.”
Now, Gachkar said his conditioning is almost back to normal. Although he said his lungs feel differently than they did before the blood clot, he can stay on the field as long as his teammates.
Teammate and linebacker Luke Lambert said he sees more intensity from Gachkar since he came back. He watched as Gachkar worked his way back, always wanting to do more work in the weight room than his condition would allow.
“I just told him, ‘Hey something happened to you that you can’t control. Get completely healthy before you start doing anything because that’s one of the main keys,’” Lambert said.
Lambert said Gachkar built up an extra intensity as he worked his way back. Now, he can use that energy on the field.
“He kind of got that injury-type attitude,” Lambert said. “Hey, I want to get on the field, I want to get on the field. And that just kind of gets you anxious, gets you anxious. And then finally he’s been able to use all that as motivation for the last year, year and a half.”
Lambert said Gachkar shows more emotion on the field, gravitating more to teammates when they make a good play.
“He likes to work hard and kind of rally around people that hit hard and stuff like that,” Lambert said. “He likes to show it on the field. He talks with his pads and not his mouth.”
In order to go up to No. 1 on the depth chart, Gachkar was moved this spring to strong side linebacker from weak side linebacker, where he had been behind Weatherspoon. The positions are similar, but the change required Gachkar to make some adjustments.
“I feel really natural here right now,” he said. “It’s definitely something I like playing right now and I’m having fun learning.”