A year ago this week, Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson took a snap from center, broke contain, tucked the ball away and headed around the corner for first-down yardage when he saw Minnesota safety Brandon Owens coming at him along the sidelines.
“It was two great football players going full speed, playing the game the way it should be played,” Golden Gophers coach Glen Mason recalled.
Both players lowered their shoulders in anticipation of the inevitable collision. The impact was spectacular, similar to the old Dodge Truck television commercial featuring the two rams crashing into one another in the wilderness.
The animals are meant to survive the blow.
Back at Beaver Stadium, only one player got up.
“It was just a horrific hit on the sidelines,” Mason said.
At first, the 225-pound Robinson talked trash to his opponent, unaware what had happened.
“Until I looked down and saw that he was really messed up,” Robinson, now an NFL running back with the 49ers, told the team’s beat writers this week. “You never want to see that happen to a player.”
What happened to Owens that day and during the last year stunned his teammates and coaches.
A hard-hitting sophomore safety who Mason believed was a legitimate NFL prospect, Owens suffered what was thought to be a “stinger” – a common football injury to the neck and shoulder area that causes both a numbing and burning sensation.
It wasn’t until doctors informed the player that he would be out for the remainder of the 2005 campaign that Mason began to worry.
“It was a lot more serious than we thought,” he said.
In January, Owens underwent an eight-hour operation to repair what Mason described as nerves that had been pulled from the vertebrae. The player’s right arm still rests in a sling today.
What’s worse, Owens will never play football again.
“I didn’t realize the kid was hurt that badly. That is a shame,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said Tuesday during his weekly teleconference.
Even though Paterno initially didn’t seem to remember the play, Mason, speaking on the weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference, said he called his closest friend in the coaching profession as soon as he learned the severity of Owens’ injury.
Paterno, according to Mason, responded by ordering the Penn State promotions department to remove the play from the video highlights that are shown at home games at Beaver Stadium.
“That’s not good for college football,” Mason said of the play.
That’s not good for anybody.
Owens, who would have been a junior this season, is still involved with UM’s program, serving as a student assistant to the coaching staff.
The fact that it was a clean play that ended this young man’s once-promising football career emphasized all the more the fragile nature of sport.
“He was a young guy having a great college career,” Mason said somberly. “He would’ve had a pro career.”
To read more Jerry Kellar’s columns, go to www.timesleader.com