COLUMBIA — Will Ebner is solid.
His arms and legs are columns of sinewy muscle, his blocks are dead on, and each tackle he makes is precise. The red pullover he wears is the only hint that something is wrong.
In Friday’s practice, he doesn’t crack a smile.
Neither a successful block nor a pat on the back from a teammate can break Ebner’s focus. As he lays three yellow bags in a row on the sideline, glancing quickly to watch his teammates completing drills at midfield, Ebner has one thing on his mind: getting rid of the pullover that marks him as injured.
Ebner, who strained his hamstring during a summer workout, aggravated the injury earlier in the week and has been sitting out of practices since Monday. On a team that has seen key players fall injured throughout the week, recovery timelines are a hot topic, and Ebner, no stranger to injury, provides the perfect role model to any player in recovery or rehab. Head Coach Gary Pinkel says that the linebacker is always so determined to return to practice that coaches must slow him down. With this injury especially, though, caution is key, and Ebner is trying to exercise restraint in his recovery.
“You’ve got to be very careful with hamstrings,” Pinkel said. “The trouble with Ebner is that he just wants to go. He says, ‘I feel fine, I want to go.’ You like athletes like that, but we’ve got to be a little more cautious.”
Pinkel says that Ebner, who on Friday played in a limited capacity with the team and completed individual rehab drills during practice, will not participate in Saturday’s scrimmage. Pinkel says that he hopes that Ebner will be able to return fully to practice by early next week, and Ebner says he’s working to get into the best shape possible before his return.
“It’s going good,” Ebner said. “A hamstring injury is the kind of thing that you have to let it heal completely before you get back into it, and that’s what I’ve been doing the past couple days.”
As dedicated as he is to the separate drills and conditioning he’s been doing during practice this week, Ebner still feels frustrated by the more fragile nature of this injury. He’s had surgery on his knee twice and his shoulder once, and each time he was able to push himself hard while recovering and return quickly. Now, he’s forced to be as careful and possible and to treat his hamstring as gingerly as a 230-lb. linebacker possibly can.
“With my knee injury… against Nebraska, I got out of the surgery room and I was trying to walk as fast as I could, trying to run as soon as I could,” Ebner said. “For a lot of injuries, that can really help getting you back on the field faster. With a hamstring, you can’t push it like you can with other injuries.”
Ebner isn’t sure what it is about sitting out that makes him so crazy, but he’s always in a hurry to get to the line of scrimmage, regardless of pain.
“I don’t know if it’s a pain tolerance thing or what, or if I’m just ignorant about it,” he said. “But I’ll run out on the field with any injury if I can, as long as I can move.”
Though Pinkel admires Ebner’s dedication to the game, at this point he knows that it’s best to hold him back. Although he says that he thinks other players should emulate the linebacker’s dedication to recovery, he emphasizes one key point: the team’s first game is not for three weeks. Right now, he says it’s better for Ebner and all the other injured players to recover fully, though if the team were playing tomorrow, many of the men in red pullovers would actually be able to take the field.
Over the course of the week, Ebner has come to grips with his injury, and he says that he’s grateful that it is the preseason and that he has time to recover. Although he says that he felt confident when practicing taking blocks with his teammates on Friday, he knows that there’s an unpredictable element to the game of football that could come back to bite him if he returns too quickly.
“The problem is that in football you can get hit or make a hit, and your body can just do things you don’t expect it to do,” Ebner said. “Those are the kind of things that are still bugging me right now. As long as I stay controlled and don’t push it too hard, it’s feeling pretty good right now.”