Except for one thing.
He was back in uniform.
Back from injury, too.
Six weeks after a freak play busted the radius in Habern's right forearm, he returned to the Sooner lineup. Not as a starter. Not as the every-down center. Not where he was before. But close.
Much closer than he was this past month.
“It was good,” he said after the Texas A&M game, “to get back in the flow of things.”
Because try as he might, it was nearly impossible to get in the flow of anything when he was injured. In an instant, Habern went from being at the center of it all to feeling like an outsider on his own team.
How do you continue to lead when you can't play? How do you handle the loss of so many games for which you prepare so long? How do you travel the road back from injury?
“He goes from touching the ball on every play ... to standing on the sideline in a sling,” team chaplain Kent Bowles said. “That's tough.”
At a time when fellow captain Ryan Broyles is just beginning a trip down recovery road, Habern has come to the end of it. Even though team rules normally prohibit injured players from talking to the media, The Oklahoman was granted special access to chronicle Habern's journey.
It was not an easy road.
Tues., Oct. 4: 10 days after the injury
Ben Habern opens one of the frosted-glass double doors and steps into the Sooners' massive training room. Except for a couple of teammates getting morning treatment, most of the crimson-padded tables and the high-tech machines are empty.
So is the exam room where Habern first came after his injury.
He sits on the corner of the oversized exam table, his tree-trunk-like frame making it obvious why the table is bigger than most. With his arm casted from elbow to knuckles, he starts to rewind the play against Missouri that put him here.
It was third down early in the third quarter. Habern snapped the ball to Landry Jones, then raised his arms to block like he's done so many times. But as Habern snapped his arms up, the nose guard chopped at his arm.
When the two connected, Habern's right arm went numb.
“Things go numb a lot during football,” he says, “and they come back.”
But the feeling didn't come back.
Team doctor Brock Schnebel twisted Habern's arm, felt a popping and took him to the team's X-ray room. Still in uniform, Habern knelt at the end of a table, his right arm propped on it as the X-ray machine snapped pictures.
On the way out of the X-ray room, Habern noticed one of the wall-mounted TVs tuned to the game.
His offense was playing without him.
Habern showered, changed into an OU football T-shirt and shorts and returned to the sideline. Some teammates saw the splint on his arm and looked away.
Injuries are kryptonite to athletes.
Less than 12 hours later, Schnebel and team surgeon Don McGinnis cut open Habern's arm, screwed an eight-inch metal plate onto his busted bone and used 20 staples to close the sliced skin.
Habern's parents, Richard and Debi, were in Norman for the game. They stayed for the surgery, took Ben back to his rental house Monday, then drove back to their home in suburban Fort Worth.
“I cried all the way,” Debi Habern said.
She saw the frustration in her youngest child. He'd been through injury before — busted ankles ended his first and second seasons in Norman — but nothing steels you for being sidelined six to eight weeks.
Ben was grouchy, frustrated and not in a very happy place. He had to stay at his rental house all week.
No class. No meetings. No practice.
Normally, every minute of his life is scheduled.
“Then, all of a sudden it turns to lying in a bed ... watching movies and sleeping and hurting,” he says. “It's weird.”
The weirdest — and hardest — times were in the afternoons when Habern knew the rest of the guys were gathering in the locker room, getting ready for meetings and dressed for practice.
“I need to be out there,” Habern would think. “I want to be practicing. I want to be with my team.”
He couldn't be.
That hurt worse than his arm.
Thurs., Oct. 13: 19 days after injury
The top of a scar pokes above the cast on Ben Habern's arm. The plaster is shorter now, and the staples that were once in his arm are gone.
The scar, though, runs the length of his forearm.
“It's like from a horror film or something,” he says.
He does that more now than the week before. That's because he's running again, something he couldn't do right after the surgery because each step jarred his arm. He's going to meetings, telling Ikard, his replacement at center, to watch for the linebacker on the blitz or look for the nose guard's up-and-under move. He's texting teammates and offering words of encouragement.
“The attitude and the mindset start changing a little bit because it's like, ‘This is my third week, and I'm starting to improve,'” Habern says.
“Now, there's kind of light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light is football.
The sport is in Habern's blood. His granddad played at Texas Tech. One of his uncles played college ball, too.
Even though Ben and older brothers John and Matt didn't play football until the seventh grade — baseball was their sport — it was always a part of their lives.
And OU football was their love. Their dad grew up in Oklahoma while their uncles graduated from OU, so the Sooners were their team.
For Ben to get a Sooner scholarship?
“We were just in disbelief,” his mother, Debi, said. “It's like a fairy tale, you know?”
The fairy tale had its ups and downs these past few years. Habern played some as a true freshman but had his season end because of an ankle injury. He became a starter as a redshirt freshman only to have his season end again because of an ankle injury.
None of it deterred him.
“This is what he does,” his father, Richard, said. “This is his passion. This is what he loves to do.”
After starting every game last season, Ben expected this to be the best yet for his team and for himself. He even talked with his family about exploring his NFL options a year early if everything went well.
All of that motivated him every day in the eight months before the season. It is what made him wake up for early morning workouts, run stadium steps in the Oklahoma summer and spend hours in a darkened room watching film.
“You work,” Habern says, “to play.”
Fri., Oct. 21: 27 days after injury
Ben Habern sits in the south end zone above Owen Field, the grounds crew painting the lines and the logos on the turf for the Texas Tech game.
The bad news?
It will be the fourth game that he has missed.
The good news?
His weekly Thursday checkup was good. The medical staff took two X-rays of Habern's arm, and on one of them, no one could even see the break.
“I've been taking all kinds of vitamins and supplements and drinking milk just trying to get an edge,” Habern says, mentioning that his holistic-medicine-loving sister gave him an all-natural, 30-pill-a-day concoction. “Maybe it's helping.”
“Maybe it's not.”
Anything to get back on the field.
Wearing a removable cast, Habern does daily rehab with Jim Hillis. The team trainer rubs Habern's wrist and forearm, digging into his skin with his thumbs, working to break up scar tissue.
“I was really worried the first time I took the cast off and could barely bend my wrist,” Habern says. “I thought, ‘I'm not going to be able to snap a football.'”
Centers are taught to cock their wrist and keep them locked as they snap the ball.
No way he would've been able to do that at first.
But Hillis would stretch his wrist back, forward and sideways. He would rub it as Habern pulled it back. He would put a foam tube in Habern's hand, have him grip it, then do all sorts of different stretches.
“It's been painful,” Habern admits.
And totally worth it.
Schnebel had started talking about his return. The next week against Kansas State would be too soon. But Texas A&M? Maybe.
That would be six weeks after the injury.
Bone takes about 12 weeks to heal.
“So, he understands that if he returns to play, he's returning with some risk,” Schnebel said. “But each week that goes by, the risk diminishes. He also understands when you play football, you're taking risks anyway.”
Habern says, “Obviously, I love football and I want to play and be able to help my team and do what I can to contribute.”
He glances down at the field being readied.
“But am I contributing if I go out and play 10 plays and break my arm again?”
Monday, Oct. 31: 37 days after injury
Ben Habern beams as he stands in a hallway inside the football facility. He's just showered after his first practice since the injury.
“It was good,” he says. “Any time you come back from any type of injury, you're kind of iffy. But it felt good.
“It just felt good to suit up again.”
Doctors cleared him a few days earlier, and he decided to go. He wore a fiberglass cast wrapped in quarter-inch foam during practice, the same setup he will have during games. He played center, not guard, the spot everyone expected he'd have play when he first returned.
“He was really excited,” buddy and fellow lineman Gabe Ikard said. “He looks like he's just ready to do something.”
Saturday, Nov. 5: 42 days after injury
Ben Habern bounces around on the sideline before kickoff.
Ever seen a 6-foot-4, 292-pound man bounce?
It's quite a sight, but Habern couldn't help himself in those moments before kickoff against Texas A&M. He didn't have to worry any more about how to be a leader while he was injured. He didn't have to stand on the sidelines in street clothes watching his teammates go on without him. He didn't have to feel like an outsider anymore.
He could just play.
Even though he sat out the first few series, he came in for back-to-back series in first half. He played six possessions in all.
“Being out for five weeks and jumping right back into it, it was probably a little quick,” Habern says while sitting in one of the interview room's oversized theater seats after the Sooners dispatched the Aggies, “but I felt like I handled it well.
“I'm excited to move forward from here.”
After enduring recovery road, the journey ahead promises to be much more fun.