Ben Habern knows what it's like to be Peyton Manning.
A year after the star NFL quarterback went through a spinal fusion, the Oklahoma center underwent a similar surgery that removed a bulging disk that was pushing against his spinal cord.
After his February fusion, Habern went through weeks of rehab and then summer workouts. Like Manning, Habern wanted to give himself every chance to play. But the pain and uncertainty was too much. On the first day of two-a-days, he told his teammates he wouldn't be playing his final season.
“We all just moved forward from there,” Habern said. “I'm there as much as I can be and where I can be to provide support for the guys on my team — on OU's team.”
The senior center has spent the last three months on the sideline of every Oklahoma home game and on Saturday, he'll step out on Owen Field for OU's Senior Day — even though he's already retired from college football — as his name is announced one last time.
“It's the most difficult thing,” Habern told The Oklahoman. “Not sharing that senior experience with my teammates.”
Habern could have heard his name all season, could have likely heard it announced in the NFL Draft and then maybe across the stands of a professional stadium. He could have, but he chose not to.
That's where Ben Habern isn't like Peyton Manning.
While Manning decided to continue his NFL career after missing the 2011 season, signed with the Denver Broncos and has played well this season, Habern's situation is different.
The center didn't have a year to sit and recover like the professional quarterback. Habern used up his redshirt year as a freshman after an ankle injury. He also wasn't making millions of dollars. He was going to class to get his human relations degree, which he'll graduate with in December.
And most of all, Habern wasn't a quarterback being protected. He was the protector. He dropped his head and hit the 300-pound lineman on the other side. Football comes with the risk of one wrong hit causing paralysis. Habern's injury severely increased that risk.
He was actually cleared to play after his successful surgery, but he heard the doctor's words when he added ‘I wouldn't let you play if you were my kid.' And then he thought. All of his injuries — his ankle, his arm, his neck, his back — added up. His dreams of being an NFL player vanished.
Habern continued to go to a majority of practices. Never coaching, but offering his experience when centers Gabe Ikard and Ty Darlington needed a word. As the center, he knew the playbook and the reads better than the rest of the line.
“He's the smartest guy on the team,” punter Tress Way said, who is also one of Habern's roommates. “It couldn't happen to a better guy. It's just unfortunate. I'm so pumped he gets to be on the field and I can't wait to see what kind of ovation everybody gives him.”
After Habern made his decision at the start of the season, he told himself he needed to find something that he was both good at and loved.
“That was football,” Habern said.
That's why now he's looking at working for an athletic department and using his degree as part of the media relations and marketing team. Then again, he said he always could become a coach.