The football career of sophomore running back Brendan Bigelow was almost over before it even started.
As a junior in high school, Bigelow saw every running back’s nightmare come to life when he felt his knee twist in a way that it never should.
In an overtime playoff game, Bigelow caught a pass in the flat and turned up field. He was immediately hit up high by a defender, which sent his body twisting in the air. However, his cleats were still firmly planted in the ground, and his knee paid the price.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “Everyone kept asking me, ‘Did you hear a pop?’ and I was just like, ‘No, and if I did is it bad?’”
After an MRI confirmed a torn ACL — the one ligament in the body that a running back relies on every time he touches the football and makes a cut — Bigelow underwent reconstructive surgery. Seven long months later, he felt ready to come back to play football.
But seven months is hardly enough time for a new ACL to heal. The graft, composed of dead tissue, must be essentially brought back to life by the body as new blood vessels penetrate their way back through — a process that can take more than nine months.
The minute he strapped his pads on for a preseason scrimmage heading into his senior year, his knee was doomed. On his first snap, Bigelow planted off his right foot and immediately felt his knee give out for the second time in less than a year. This time, he knew exactly what it meant.
“I was just like, “I think I’m done with football,” Bigelow says. “‘I think that’s about it and I’ll just go ahead and hang it up.’”
But his father would have none of that. Frank Bigelow knew that his son, having rushed for 1,000 yards on just 87 carries as a junior, had way too much talent to pack it up.
“His spirits were pretty down,” he says. “It was hard to keep him motivated, because he was up and down sometimes. I just tried to keep telling him over and over again that we could do this.”
So it was back under the knife. Then it was another round of trying to walk again, followed by a year of grueling strengthening and flexibility exercises.
“The second time was harder,” Bigelow says. “It took longer and I really had to rehab it. I had constant aches and soreness. It was horrible.”
While Bigelow spent every day trying to at least run without any side-to-side cutting moves, his peers used their senior seasons to bolster their college football prospects. Every day, he worried that his scholarship offers would disappear.
But those schools, including Cal, stayed with him the whole way, convinced that his devastating breakaway speed — often compared to Jahvid Best’s — made him a can’t-miss talent.
“You watch the tape and he kind of jumps out at you, and it always looks like the film was sped up,” running backs coach Ron Gould says. “We wanted him all the way. We made a commitment to the young man, and we never did waiver.”
Yet even as a freshman and a full year post surgery, Bigelow didn’t feel like his old self. Every time he cut off his right foot, painful memories of his blown-out ACL reverberated through his mind. With every plant, he half-expected another trip back to the orthopedic surgeon’s office.
Early in the fall of 2011, he showed some of his potential in an 88-yard kickoff return against the FCS-level Presbyterian team. Yet his overall contribution to the offense was minimal, making him feel like a shade of his former self.
But what a difference a year can make.
Naturally, Bigelow dedicated the offseason to continuing to strengthen the muscles around his knee, taking more and more stress off his ACL. And it paid off.
“This year, I’m just going after it and playing football,” Bigelow says. “It doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t ache. I’m at full go now.”
His knee couldn’t have looked healthier in week three against Ohio State. On national television, Bigelow touched the ball just four times but racked up 160 yards on the ground to go along with a pair of scores.
In the third quarter, Bigelow took a handoff and immediately broke a tackle, spun off another defender while putting his hand on the ground to stay up, then spun again for good measure and bolted down the left sideline for an 81-yard Jahvid-esque touchdown. His speed was finally on display, and it was every bit as devastating as advertised.
“I spun off a few people and just tried to stay on my feet, keep pumping and keep running,” Bigelow said. “My eyes got big when I turned the corner.”
The play was later featured on the Yahoo! Homepage as well as Sports Center’s top college football plays.
“It was a great feeling,” Bigelow says. “I worked so hard to get where I am and to have that publicity felt pretty good.”
Yet, despite his flashy numbers from the game, Bigelow still finds himself buried in Cal’s crowded backfield, stuck behind seniors Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson.
However, his speed and penchant for big plays have made him impossible to ignore. He’s only carried the ball 10 times in 2012, but he’s averaging more than 20 yards per rush. Every time Bigelow touches the football, good things happen.
“Any missed tackle with Brendan Bigelow and he’s gone,” says wide receiver Keenan Allen.
Even if Bigelow won’t admit it, his limited role in the offense — such as zero carries against ASU last weekend — has to be frustrating. His performance against Ohio State alone would have warranted a major role on any other team.
But he’s confident that his time will come.
And while he possesses the raw talent to become the next great Cal running back, he also knows that nothing is guaranteed. No amount of surgery will ever be able to undo the massive amount of trauma his knee sustained. The new graft might be strong, but his knee is permanently damaged.
His long-term prospects are grim. Severe arthritis at a young age is nearly inevitable, especially given the extra wear from football that his knee will endure.
But none of that matters to Bigelow. He’s been through too much to just hang it up now. Instead, he’ll just wait his turn until he can reap the benefits of three long years of pain and perseverance.
“When my number is called, I’ll deliver,” he says.
Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]