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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- For Andrew Donnal, the most difficult part of sustaining and recovering from a catastrophic injury was the isolation.
For more than three months, Donnal was away from football. He couldn’t practice. Instead of going through weight-training sessions and meetings, Donnal spent the time strengthening his surgically repaired right knee.
“Sitting out most of the season last year, it’s something I’d never experienced before,” said Donnal, an Anthony Wayne graduate and an offensive lineman on the Iowa football team. “Now, it’s nice to get back on the field and do what I love to do.”
Donnal and the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) host Michigan (7-3, 3-3) at noon today at Kinnick Stadium. In more than a year since the injury, Donnal has found his place on Iowa’s offensive line, which rotates six players through the course of a game, and he has rotated with Jordan Walsh at right guard this season.
Donnal will face the Wolverines today with some family bragging rights on the line. His younger brother, Mark, is a freshman on the Michigan men’s basketball team, and Donnal visited his brother in Ann Arbor last week, during Iowa’s bye week.
“He likes it a lot there,” said Donnal, a junior and leisure studies major at Iowa. “From what he’s told me, he likes his teammates, his coaches, and he’s starting to get used to the college lifestyle.”
Donnal is helping Iowa redeem itself after last season, in which the Hawkeyes went an uncharacteristic 4-8 overall and 2-6 in Big Ten play and was not bowl-eligible for the first time since 2000.
“We were a young team and we learned a lot of things from last year,” Donnal said. “Going through something like that, it helps you realize a lot of the things you’re not doing right. It enables you to take care of the little details that you take for granted. We looked at ourselves after the season with objective eyes, we learned from our mistakes, we accepted what happened and moved forward.”
Donnal’s 2012 season ended during a 38-14 loss against Penn State, when he and offensive lineman Brandon Scherff were injured within minutes of each other. A player rolled onto Donnal from behind, which caused the PCL, MCL, and meniscus to tear in Donnal’s right knee, and fractured his tibia. A week later, Donnal had surgery. Two plays later, Scherff suffered a broken fibula and dislocated right ankle and underwent surgery the next day.
“He was making a move and coming on, and unfortunately when players get injured, they lose a lot of ground,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s hard on any player, when they get injured. They feel as if they’re separate from the team, no matter what they do. It’s a very hard thing, mentally, for any player to deal with, not to mention the grueling aspect of the physical training, coming back from injuries. That’s something that the average fan doesn’t realize is such a part of it.”
When he returned to the Hawkeyes for spring practices, Donnal admitted that it came with both physical and psychological challenges.
“You always have the thought of your knee in the back of your mind, when you’re playing there at first,” Donnal said. “You don’t want to re-injure it or re-aggravate it, and that can hinder you a little bit. It doesn’t let you go full-bore, and it makes you hesitate a bit.
That hesitation was brief. Once Donnal got over that, he found his confidence returning. When the season began the final weekend of August, Donnal had re-discovered his rhythm, which has continued through the season as part of Iowa’s offensive line.
“The more guys there are and you work with, you get into a rhythm,” said Donnal, a 6-foot-7, 305-pound junior. “There are more fresh legs, and if there are more guys who can do it, the better. We play together every day in practice, so you kind of have a groove before you go into a game. We know what each of us can do well, and we’ve taken so many snaps together, it doesn’t take too much time to adjust.”