Denison lineman was down, but not out

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Tyler Gropp was told to not even think about playing football in 2012. Good thing he had other plans.
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It was an injury seldom seen in sports. An injury that head football athletic trainer Ashley Stambolis described as "one typically found in car accidents."

Tyler Gropp, then a junior for the Big Red, was making his sixth consecutive start on the offensive line, showing promise for a unit that was giving opposing defenses fits.

On Oct. 8 of last year, however, his football future would suddenly change. Blocking a routine running play he had executed so many times before, Gropp felt his foot trapped under a defender, while another pushed him over the pile.

"It was one of our basic run plays," Gropp said. "I'm engaged on a linebacker, and someone came from behind, landed on me, unwarned. It felt like nothing I've ever felt before. Then I'm on the ground, and I don't know how to describe it."

Though he was unsure of the severity of the injury, Gropp could immediately feel the pain shoot through his left leg. As Stambolis made her way her way onto Deeds Field, she first saw the brutality of the collision.

"When I went out, his leg was bent back," she said. "I thought it was ACL or kneecap. But then I could tell his bottom bone and top bone weren't connected anymore, which I've never seen. He dislocated his whole knee."

After seeing this, Gropp was quickly placed in a splint and taken to the hospital to get a full diagnosis. For someone who had never sustained a major injury, Gropp was convinced that it was something less serious.

"It was a weird denial phase I was going through," stated Gropp. "For some reason I thought they would pop (my knee) back into place, and I should be back in a few weeks."

An MRI the following Monday would reveal the real damage. Gropp had sustained a complete tear in his ACL, PCL, and MCL, as well as a slight tear in his meniscus. As doctors explained to head football coach Jack Hatem the devastating injuries, there was a distinct probably that Gropp's football career had come to an abrupt finish.

"Right after the MRI, and the evaluation, the real belief was that this kid probably can't play again," Hatem said. "I really didn't see any way he could go from that day, that injury, to back on the field."

"The doctor said not to even think about football next year," Stambolis said. "Think about rehab, because it's going to be very difficult. Essentially, they put a new knee in there. Just getting him to just be a normally functioning 21-year-old was important."

Yet on that day, Gropp had already made up his mind. Using the same determination that helped him grow from an unpolished freshman to a starter and leader, he was certain he would make it back for his final season in Granville.

"That was all that was going through my mind," Gropp said. "While the doctor was saying the likelihood that I wouldn't play again, in the back of my mind I knew I would be back. My goal was to be healthy by the time fall camp started."

For an injury that should take 12 or more months to recover, Gropp was eager to show it could be done in nine. Following surgery on Oct. 20, Gropp began the long, arduous road to recovery.

At times, it appeared as though little progress was made. Gropp spent the better part of the first two months just working on simply bending and straightening his knee. The next five or six months were used to build up the knee's strength, but the process was not without setbacks.

"After three to four months the healing regresses where things get weak again," Stambolis said. "The ligaments fully attach and they're becoming accustomed to being back together in your knee again. We essentially had to teach him to run and walk."

In spite of the setbacks, Gropp continually made the trek down to the Mitchell Center. So much so, in fact, that Gropp had become a staple in the training room and football facilities. With daily trips to the training room to work on bending, walking, or strengthening his left knee, Hatem was quickly impressed with Gropp's unwavering grit.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "I think he might have drove our training staff nuts. From that first day, even though I felt he might not (play), he always thought he was going to play. There was never a doubt in his mind. His dedication was beyond anything you'd ever expect."

During the summer months, Gropp began to really test out the strength of his new knee. After months of rehabilitation, he was cleared to work on football-specific drills. Through the dog days of summer, Gropp was testing his cutting, increasing his vertical jump, drilling speed, and agility. By the time August rolled around, he was ready to rejoin the team at the start of the preseason. Rather than worry about the potential for any injury complications, Gropp focused solely on the preparation to get himself, and his teammates, ready for another year.

"I came into camp thinking my knee is just old news," Gropp said.

Now almost a year later, Gropp is showing the same tenacity and tough approach that helped him become a steady contributor last fall. With a daily routine of riding the spin bike before practice, and a dose of ice right after, Gropp has resisted any major setbacks. Though he may not have the same role he held last fall, Gropp is more than happy to join his team for one final season in Piper Stadium.

"I'm so happy to be a part of the team again, I love Denison football," he said. "I love being around everyone, and I couldn't imagine a fall season not on this team. That's a testament to this group. They will drive you to get you to do something you never thought you could."

By Braden Layer

Denison Sports Information Assistant