The process became cruelly familiar for Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen over each of the last two winters, when practice began for Minnesota.
Instead of taking the court with the rest of the Gophers, Fox and Ihnen would instead head to the training room to continue rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery. The anterior cruciate ligament comprises three of the worst words in sports, and Fox and Ihnen lived it for one year and the next in monotonous and painful fashion.
"I know everything about him. He knows everything about me. Sometimes it wasn't even about the injuries or the emotions behind the injuries. Iit was just talking and just having a conversation and taking your mind off of this crazy mumbo jumbo world," Fox said recently. "So I'm grateful for him."
The club that nobody wants to join was formed in 2021.
Fox tore his left ACL in the spring, just a few days after he finalized his transfer to Minnesota from Northern State, an NCAA Division II program in South Dakota. Ihnen, the only player who stayed with the Gophers after the coaching change from Richard Pitino to Ben Johnson, tore his left ACL that summer.
Then in the summer of 2022, Fox's comeback was aborted by a tear of his right ACL. Ihnen's recurrence of the left ACL tear came a couple of weeks later.
"It helped just to have someone go through the same thing as you, because you had someone to confide in," Ihnen said. "It was just also not necessarily competition, but we pushed each other in a sense in the training room. It made days where you see your teammates practicing and you want to be out there a lot easier, just because someone else was with me."
One month ago, Fox and Ihnen experienced that adrenaline rush of live action again. For Fox, the wait between games was 964 days. Ihnen's was 969 days. Last week, when the Gophers visited Ohio State, Fox played in a Big Ten game for the first time. He'll have his first experience in a conference home game for his home state team on Wednesday when Minnesota hosts Nebraska.
They're both coming off the bench, playing limited roles, but to have them both in the rotation has been both a boost of inspiration and depth for the Gophers.
"It's been pretty incredible when you think about it, to even stay motivated to get to this point," Johnson said. "Two years of the same type of tortuous rehab."
Such long layoffs between games aren't unprecedented, of course. Recurrences of major injuries in high-profile sports are hard to forget for even casual fans, considering the strong feel-sorry-for-you factor surrounding the athletes who've worked so arduously to come back only to get hurt again and be sent back to ground zero of rehab.
Robbie Hummel tore his right ACL in 2010 on the Williams Arena court that Fox and Ihnen have worked so hard to return to, damaging Purdue's national championship pursuit down the stretch of a stellar season. Eight months later, at the beginning of fall practice, Hummel felt that same pop in his knee.
Ray Smith's promising career at Arizona never got off the ground when his third ACL tear in three years — in an exhibition game in 2016 — prompted him to retire from the game for good.
Martin Krampelj endured three ACL tears, twice at Creighton, and came back to the court each time before concluding his college career in 2019. Joshua Langford missed 23 months of action with Michigan State following foot surgeries before returning in 2020. Chris Harris Jr. played in just one game over a 33-month span with Oklahoma State because of two ACL tears in 2020.
Seth Towns, now a 26-year-old super senior for Howard in his eighth college season, missed two full seasons at both Harvard (knee) and Ohio State (back) due to injuries.
On the women's side, Caroline Doty left UConn in 2013 with three ACL tears and three national championships. Jacki Gemelos finally appeared in a WNBA game in 2015 after the prized recruit at USC wound up undergoing five ACL reconstruction surgeries.
But two players on the same team, at the same time? That's a rarity, to be sure. Fox and Ihnen, who each have one year of eligibility remaining after this season, will be forever joined at the hip, er, knee.
"I have so much respect for those guys to just keep going," Hummel said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "There's so many guys who would say, 'You know what? This has happened again. I'm good. I don't need to keep pouring my heart and soul into this just to have my heart broken.' The fact that they're both contributing I think is phenomenal."
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