Two months and a one week after suffering a knee injury that has robbed him of the first seven games of the 2005 season, Justin Ostrowski said the words the University of Wisconsin football team perhaps needed to hear more than any others:
“I expect to play.”
Ostrowski, considered the Badgers’ best defensive tackle heading into training camp, was nearly lost for the season when his right knee collided with fullback Matt Bernstein’s helmet Aug. 12, just three days into formal practice. Ostrowski partially tore the posterior cruciate ligament and suffered a fracture on the bottom of his knee.
Wednesday, as he spoke with reporters for the first time since his injury, Ostrowski had the look of someone whose very essence had been torn asunder and was just now, slowly, painstakingly, being made whole again.
The football field as salve.
“I love football,” Ostrowski said. “It was a disaster when I went down and it’s been a long process. I’ve had a lot of great support with the coaches and the players and family and friends.”
Ostrowski is cleared to play Saturday, when Wisconsin (6-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) hosts Purdue (2-4, 0-3) for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Camp Randall Stadium.
It is unclear how much he will be able to play, from a health and conditioning standpoint. But anything Ostrowski can give the ailing Badger line will be a substantial benefit.
“I think it’s just an emotional lift,” Ostrowski said, when asked what he can contribute Saturday. “I have to get the confidence back in the coaches. I’ve got to show them what I can do and what I’ve been doing.”
UW’s defense has received other positive news on the injury front this week. Starting end Joe Monty was initially feared to have suffered a season-ending knee injury in Saturday’s win over Minnesota. But Monty has taken part in practice this week on a limited basis and should be able to play in some capacity.
However, two other regulars injured against the Gophers — end Kurt Ware (ankle) and tackle Jason Chapman (ankle) — did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday and are doubtful for this week.
“Justin Ostrowski did practice this week and did some good things,” defensive line coach John Palermo said. “I think we’re just going to have to wait until game time with him to see how he feels because ultimately he’ll be the guy that has to make the call as to whether he wants to play or not this weekend.”
Ostrowski is chomping at the bit.
“Every night before I go to bed I always envision playing,” he said. “I just can’t wait to get out there… Just suiting up this week’s going to be a great thing.”
Ostrowski had to watch helplessly while his defensive line teammates increasingly battled injuries of their own.
“It’s been frustrating just standing on the sideline knowing you can’t help and can’t contribute to the process,” Ostrowski said.
Even before the season-ending injury to defensive end Jamal Cooper (knee) or last week’s losses, Ostrowski was pained.
“The toughest part is just game-day Saturdays,” he said. “I mean, away games you can’t travel and home games you’ve got to sit and watch from the sidelines knowing you could contribute. That’s probably been the toughest thing for me.”
Tuesday, Ostrowski practiced for the first time, on a limited basis. Wednesday he was full go.
“Right now the PCL is totally healed,” he said. “It’s just a bone bruise that at times can cause problems.”
“We’re just working it slowly, just because I have to get reps again,” Ostrowski said. “I haven’t had reps for a long time. So I just got to keep working and just do everything slowly.”
Just putting on pads again and getting into a routine was a cathartic experience for Ostrowski. The slow process of recovering from the injury builds character, he said, and mental toughness.
“I just feel grateful for putting the pads back on, being with my teammates,” Ostrowski said. “Not going to practice, just working out…That’s kind of depressing. Just being on the football field again with everyone is a great thing.”