PROVO — Now is prime healing season for football players.
I’d wager most people have little idea how much blood and treasure college players pour into their beloved sport. As spring football practices begin across the state in the coming weeks, it’s a good time to peek into the lives of two random players who just finished their college careers.
While walking out of Sam’s Club at East Bay in Provo on Thursday, I spotted two former Bingham High stars who just finished playing for BYU, kicker Justin Sorensen and tight end turned defensive end Austin Holt. They were eating a cheap fast food lunch at a picnic table. What stood out were their slings and bandages.
They looked like they’d just left an accident scene and had crawled out of an ambulance. But they were smiling, happy as mice in a cheese factory.
Sorensen had his right arm in a sling. Holt wore a soft cast on his left hand. Both were the result of postseason, post-career surgeries while they could still get repairs done on someone else’s dime. Both are finishing school and will graduate in the coming months.
“I don’t have the strength to write or type, so I write a little, wait, write some more, wait,” said Sorensen. “Trying to write is insane. I can’t even put on deodorant under either arm.”
Sorensen tore his labrum from back to front. He first injured it as a freshman. “It was a random thing and over time it got worse after 2008. Sometimes when I’d give someone a high-five, my shoulder would go out of its socket. It didn’t start bad but got steadily worse. I tore my bicep tendon, frayed my rotator cuff, started a bone spur, and they had to go in and fix it.”
Sorensen’s back is totally messed up. He once missed six weeks of classes during one semester in what he called a “GPA crusher” that “didn’t go over well.” He now has degenerative disc disease where the lower six discs separating his vertebrae are almost 90 percent gone. “Where you’re supposed to have five-eighths of an inch of space, I don’t even have a quarter of an inch and there is arthritis back there. The bones start rubbing against each other because there is no cushion.” Two years ago he had one disc removed and part of another.
“Over time, they will eventually fuse together,” he said. “In 2009, I also had surgery to reconstruct my ankle.”
Meanwhile, Sorensen's buddy from their Bingham High days, Holt, just finished major shoulder reconstruction surgery in January to repair his rotator cuff, his bicep tendon and the labrum on his left shoulder. Last week he had surgery on his left hand because after a career of blocking and getting hit after catches, there were bones in his hand that had fused together, making it hard to bend his hand and wrist.
On April 3, Holt will have surgery on his right shoulder, where his collarbone is completely disconnected from his shoulder. After his sophomore year, he had ACL surgery on his knee — four surgeries in four years.
“I’m getting glued back together,” said Holt.
Sorensen is getting married June 28th. “I just hope it’s healed by then,” he said, sharing a laugh with Holt.
This isn’t unique. It’s happening at Utah State, Utah and other schools across the country. January is surgery month for college football players. A year ago, both Cougar stars Kyle Van Noy and Cody Hoffman did not play in spring drills due to surgeries.
A BYU football spokesman said at least 10 players will not participate in spring drills, which begin Monday, due to surgery or just being held out.
Sorensen said it hit him the other day when he thought of calling his football buddies to help him move. “You’d think I’d know some big, strong guys I could call, but as I went down the list, this guy had shoulder surgery, this guy had hip issues and another had this or that.”
During his college career, Sorensen participated in only one spring camp. Holt played in only two.
“When I went to schedule my surgeries, I looked at the doctor’s calendar and it said, 'Player, player, player, me, player, somebody else, player, player. ... It’s just the violence of the sport,” Holt said.
Said Sorensen: “Yeah, it isn’t anything from our training or workouts. It’s just getting hit by big guys, colliding bodies. You get two guys hitting each other and it takes a toll. I should be 6-4 but now I’m just 6-2.”
Many times over the past few months, Holt has had family members ask if what he’s been through has been worth it.
“I say yes, it was worth it. It was a cool experience and now we’re reminiscing. I got to play at Florida State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Texas. I got to play in Dallas Cowboys Stadium, where the Texans play in Houston, and where the San Diego Chargers play.”
Said Sorensen: “I scored points at Notre Dame. I can tell my grandkids that.”
“The thing is,” Sorensen continued, defensive of his teammates, “when you hear somebody criticize how an offensive lineman is playing out there, they have no idea what they may be going through — a hip issue, a broken-down shoulder or a painful stinger. You just don’t know.”
He’s right. Few understand what it takes to get on and off the field during a long football season.
So I left this duo to their hot dogs, thanked them for their time.
They deserve the time off to lick wounds and remember the good old days.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.