St. John's Standout Excelled Despite 2 Torn ACLs Last Season

St. John's junior defensive lineman Nathan Brinker earned All-MIAC first team honors despite playing through two torn ACLs a year ago. Photo: Sean Donohue/Courtesy of St. John's
St. John's junior defensive lineman Nathan Brinker earned All-MIAC first team honors despite playing through two torn ACLs a year ago.

August 23, 2017 08:09 PM

Nathan Brinker has never enjoyed visiting the doctor's office.

"I get kind of scared," the 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior defensive lineman at St. John's said. "I grew up dreading it. It always seems like you get bad news."

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But even his well-honed sense of apprehension didn't prepare him for the news delivered when he finally made an overdue appointment following the 2016 football season.

The diagnosis: torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees.

Which came as quite a surprise to the Holdingford High School graduate, who not only played through the injuries last fall, but thrived while doing so.

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Brinker, who as a senior led the Huskers to the Class 2A football title, captured a Class A wrestling title at 195 pounds and finished fourth in the shot put at the Class A state track and field meet, had a team-best 15 tackles-for-loss for the Johnnies last fall.

That included 9.5 sacks while forcing two fumbles and recovering another. He was named D3football.com All-West Region and All-MIAC first team.

It was a breakout season. Even if Brinker was, well, broken.

"I knew something was wrong, but I had no idea it was that bad," Brinker said. "I felt some pain during games and even walking to class. About halfway through the season, I started taking a little time off from practice during the week to rest up. But I was able to play through it.

"When they told me (about the ACLs), I was actually pretty shocked I was able to play through that."

Brinker's left knee had been an issue since he hurt it the week before the state wrestling tournament as a senior. Though again there, he chose to keep competing.

He said his doctor thought the left ACL tear may have dated back even that far. The right may have come as far back as the final game of his freshman season at St. John's.

None of it stopped the former four-sport high school athlete from playing. Nor from working 60 to 65 hours pouring concrete and laying foundation in the summer - as he did again this year even as he recovered from his injuries.

"That's just the way he's wired," said Johnnies head coach Gary Fasching of a player who has battled through exercise-induced asthma.

"He always wants to go-go-go. Injuries don't mean anything to him. He always wants to play through it."

But Brinker was finally forced to take action on the ACLs after last season. He underwent surgery on his left knee in December and his right in January.

Months of rehabilitation followed, though he was medically cleared to resume construction work this summer. He sat out spring workouts, but was able to start sprinting last month.

The Johnnies have been bringing him along slowly so far this preseason. But he said he was able to practice full-go for the first time this past Monday.

He expects to play when St. John's opens the season at home against St. Scholastica on Sept. 2. Though exactly how much remains to be determined.

"This is really the first time in two years that my knees feel good," said Brinker, whose team currently has 180 players on the roster, and will be part of a big matchup with archrival St. Thomas on Sept. 23 at Target Field - a game for which the Minnesota Twins say around 25,000 tickets have already been sold.

"I'm walking normal and everything," Brinker said. "There are still a few limitations on what I can do. But as the season goes on, I'm just going to get stronger and stronger."

Which begs the question: Exactly what is a healthy Brinker capable of?

"I guess we'll have to see how it goes," he said. "I'd like to think I'll be able to play at an even higher level after all this. But I'm just excited to get the season started."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

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