Ben Habern and Gabe Ikard labored through a typical weightlifting session together this summer when Habern suddenly began having trouble.
His arm started going numb.
Soon afterward, Ikard told the story to his father, Jim, over dinner.
“We were out to dinner, and he said, ‘I'm the only healthy center on campus,'” Jim Ikard remembered.
Wednesday, the junior officially became the Sooners' starter at the position after coach Bob Stoops announced Habern's decision to end his college football career due to lingering neck and back issues.
The problems stem from a condition the senior has dealt with since high school. It marks the end of a special career often marred by health issues.
As a true freshman, Habern played in a few games, suffered an ankle injury and was given a medical hardship. The next year, again a freshman, he started 10 games before another season-ending ankle injury.
Habern started all 14 games as a sophomore for the Sooners team that won the Big 12 championship and Fiesta Bowl.
In 2011, though, Habern missed a large chunk of his junior year with a fractured forearm. During the time Habern was out, Ikard moved over from guard and played quite well in his place.
When Habern had neck surgery in January and missed spring football, Ikard moved back to center, he thought, temporarily.
At Wednesday's Sooner Caravan at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Ikard spoke to the crowd and said, “I assume I'll be at center during all of two-a-days.”
The crowd laughed, and Toby Rowland, the evening's Master of Ceremonies, looked to Stoops in the crowd for confirmation.
Stoops just nodded.
“It's horrible,” Ikard said of Habern's career ending. “It's horrible for him; it's horrible for the team, but he's taking care of his health and he's making the smart decision.”
Habern, who was the center on the preseason All-Big 12 team, was one of three players representing the Sooners at Big 12 Media Days just last week, when he said his neck problems, which required surgery in January, were “healed up.”
When asked if he was 100 percent, Habern said, “Yeah,” adding that he began feeling better at the beginning of the summer.
“I was able to work out all summer and get back into shape,” said Habern, who was on preseason watch lists for the Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy and Rimington Award. “I feel good.”
But Stoops, during a brief media session before Wednesday's Caravan, said the news of the senior's retirement from football came as no surprise.
“We love Ben, but it's not a big surprise to us who have been around,” Stoops said.
When Ikard was forced to play center a year ago, Adam Shead started several games at guard.
Over dinner that summer night, the conversation between Gabe and Jim Ikard was about the Sooners' depth at center. Junior deep snapper Austin Woods was undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma at the time, although he has reportedly been cleared to play, according to the Rivals website SoonerScoop.com.
True freshman Ty Darlington, from Apopka, Fla., received rave reviews from Habern at Big 12 Media Days, but he has dropped nine pounds from 275 to 266 since signing in February. Sources said it's because Darlington is suffering from a sports hernia.
Redshirt freshman Nila Kasitati has the potential to play at center, but he is having heart issues. He had surgery Tuesday, which, according to several player tweets, went well.
After Gabe Ikard saw Habern struggle to lift weights, he knew responsibility for the center position might rest squarely on his shoulders.
“I think Ben was just having trouble with what typically he would have to do,” Jim Ikard said. “Even turning his head, he was having trouble.
“He is such a great kid, and I know he would have done anything to play. You know that when he said he couldn't play anymore, he had to be hurt.”